It’s go-time in Lewis County.
It’s “wait-and-see” in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties.
The athletic directors for Lowville, Copenhagen, Beaver River, South Lewis and Harrisville — a Section 10 school participating in the Frontier League for the winter sports season — met Friday to iron out the final details before high-risk winter sports can begin practicing this Monday, Feb. 1.
Basketball, wrestling and volleyball have all been given the green light.
“They just talked about all of the protocols and procedures that we are going to follow as we move into our season,” Scott Connell, Copenhagen superintendent, said.
But in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, schools are delaying the start.
In a joint statement from the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton Board of Cooperative Educational Services and St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, the two counties that comprise Section 10 put high-risk winter sports on pause despite the authorization to permit them from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week.
The decision to pause beyond Monday stems from the uptick in COVID-19 cases between the two counties.
“At this time, based on the present health crisis in Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, and due to concerns about logistics necessary to make these programs safe and successful, Section 10 school districts are not ready to commence high risk winter sports. The Section 10 school districts are committed to an ongoing discussion regarding the evolving health and safety conditions and their ability to meet Public Health guidelines. In the interim, school districts will continue to meet and work on required plans so that when feasible, a return to high-risk athletics will be as safe as possible,” the joint statement reads.
As of Wednesday, the infection rate in Franklin County sat at 10 percent, while St. Lawrence County logged 67 new COVID-19 cases Thursday.
Of the 24 school districts that make up Section 10, many have shifted to remote learning in the past week. Canton, Clifton-Fine, Gouverneur, Hermon-DeKalb, Heuvelton, Madrid-Waddington, Morristown, Ogdensburg, Parishville-Hopkinton and St. Lawrence Central all switched to remote learning this week. Salmon River moved to remote learning Thursday and St. Regis Falls and Tupper Lake are in distance learning until March 1.
“The school districts that compromise Section 10 remain fully committed and continue to work closely with its school leaders and local Departments of Health experts,” Section 10 Director Carl Normandin said in the press release.
“Moving forward, the focus will be on a sport-by-sport basis to complete the required preparedness plans as outlined in the DOH protocols and the NYSED guidance documents to ensure a safe practice and competition environment,” Normandin said.
Lewis County, meanwhile, is planning for practices next week and games in February.
As of now, only schedules for basketball are set. The five Lewis County schools will compete in an eight-game schedule among themselves, with each school playing each other twice. The season will not culminate in Frontier League playoff and schools will not be able to schedule games outside of Lewis County.
“They have the ability to (begin practice Monday), some schools are still in cohorts,” Connell said. “I don’t know if they’re all going to start on February first, but they all have the ability to.”
Lewis County superintendents discussed with county public health officials about possibly testing student-athletes weekly to ensure the safest environment, but that task proved to be unfeasible.
“The county wasn’t convinced that they would be able to get enough tests to sustain us for the whole season,” Connell said. “They felt that the antigen test was not as accurate, the rapid test was not as accurate as they would want it to be. And monitoring symptoms, if we do it really well, could be just as effective.”
Like the fall, this will require extreme diligence from student-athletes and coaches.
“Just making sure — athletes like to play hurt, sick, they’ll do anything to play — and we just have to make sure that they understand that doing that in this environment right now is not a good thing,” Connell said. “It may have been a good thing to do it for your team in years past but this year, they need to be honest and let us know when they’re not feeling themselves.”
While the New York State Department of Health allows for two spectators per athlete, there will be no spectators permitted at any indoor events for interscholastic competition in Lewis County. However, according to Connell, each school has plans in place to live-stream their games.
The personnel on hand for events will also be limited. In addition to no spectators, there will be no managers and no unpaid assistant coaches. The only people on the bench should be the varsity coach, junior varsity coach, any paid assistant coaches and the student-athletes. There will also be only one statistician on hand to do the scorebook, along with a clock-keeper and a 30-second shot clock-keeper.
For Beaver River, which has been participating in intramurals, beginning practice Monday will mean mixing the cohorts for the first time.
“We’re going to mix the cohorts, we haven’t had mixed cohorts yet,” Beaver River athletic director Wanda Joslin said. “Obviously it won’t be completely skill-based, they’ll maybe do another week of skill-based, but they will have to start playing and scrimmaging, things of that sort.”
Having participated in interscholastic sports in the fall, Lewis County schools are accustomed to following the proper procedures.
“We just followed all of the protocol,” Joslin said. “Sanitized a lot, kept everybody separated as much as possible, everybody has to have masks on at all times, we do the temperature checks. Everybody, if they bring a bag, we keep everything separated. During soccer we had spots out on the field that were separated and they had to put their stuff on a certain spot.”
Having that experience has made Joslin much more confident in being able to pull off high-risk winter sports.
“Yeah, I’ve gone through it, I actually coached myself, so I’ve been through it and I’m going to be there to help the coaches, too,” Joslin said. “We’ve already gone through it once, we’re just inside where the airflow is a little bit different. But we found that it did work in the fall so hopefully everything works well in the winter, too.”