The fall sports season — if there is one — is set to start in six weeks, and South Jefferson girls soccer coach Terry Burgess has questions, lots of questions.
They surround transportation, facility use, practicing daily despite a hybrid learning model, health, etc.
But they all come back to the one big question.
Is playing high school sports in the fall of 2020 feasible?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we could, I wouldn’t be surprised if we couldn’t,” Burgess said.
To him, one of the biggest problems in need of a solution is that of transportation to away games. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association made clear when it decided to delay the start of the fall season to Sept. 21 that it will also encourage teams to schedule games against opponents who are geographically close.
For Burgess and his soccer team, that doesn’t pose too much of an issue since they play in the Frontier League and most FL teams are relatively close to one another. However, the Spartans have already heard that a tournament they were supposed to participate in Section 10 has been canceled.
Regardless of the relatively short distance between South Jefferson and some of its opposing schools, Burgess is still concerned with how his team could safely ride the bus.
“I know that right now for example, as a soccer coach, I kind of feel like maybe we can play because there’s been youth soccer, club teams going to tournaments and so on, and my answer to that, as opposed to school sports, is that in those situations, transporting is probably mom and dad taking the kids there. There’s not a need to use a locker room or get a shower or whatever, it’s very, very simple in that sense,” Burgess said. “In high school sports, if you’re a public school, one of the requirements is to provide transportation to and from the games. So how do we do that with a varsity and JV team going to the same location?”
Burgess mentioned the idea of sending out two busses but also acknowledged how some school districts may be short on bus drivers.
Social distancing in the classroom and on the bus is largely why most area schools will pursue a hybrid learning model — some days in-person learning, some days virtual — come September. The ability to social distance all of a sudden becomes tricky once you try to start playing games.
For Burgess, he doesn’t see it being much of a problem in practice, but is unsure how it can practically be done on the playing field during a game.
“You’re going to distance those kids from each other (in the classroom), how do you then say we’re having sports?” Burgess said. “On one hand it makes no sense, on the other hand, I’m thinking to myself that it’s outdoors and they’re already doing it with the clubs and things, so there must be some (possibility).
“The hard part is, with a game like soccer, that you’re going to have contact with each other,” he added. “How are you going to stay six feet away from someone who has the ball? You’d let them shoot? It makes no sense. I think in soccer, the people are going to be close to each other.”
Burgess also stated how he doesn’t feel it’s feasible for the athletes to use masks while they play. However, he plans to require his team to wear masks and socially distance when on the sideline.
While high school athletics attempt to solve these tremendous problems, college athletic conferences have begun slowly calling off their fall seasons. Division I conferences such as the Atlantic 10, Ivy League and the Mid-American Conference have decided to call off all sports for the fall.
Burgess sees this trend and feels less optimistic about New York’s chances of successfully playing sports come Sept. 21.
“It makes me really think that we probably won’t play in the fall,” Burgess said. “As I said, maybe we will, but I tend to think that we probably won’t partly because of the example of the colleges and partly the idea of getting things into somewhat of a routine and situated before we move onto other extra things like sports and plays and so on.”
NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas has said repeatedly that his ultimate goal is to provide every athlete the opportunity to play their sport in the 2020-21 school year. The NYSPHSAA’s decision to delay sports was made in order to give schools time to adapt to their reopening plans and all the precautions that will come with it. But given the amount of unknowns still surrounding the safety that comes with opening schools, Burgess, a health teacher in the South Jeff district, isn’t sure if that one month buffer is enough time.
“Maybe not, we had some experience with the online stuff last year, so we’re better prepared than we were last year to do that,” Burgess said. “We need to figure out now how to handle the online part, which I think we understand how to do, and how do we handle kids in school.”
Despite all the questions surrounding the logistics of playing high school sports in the COVID-19 era, the big concern is if it can be done safely.
Being age 68 and having three auto-immune diseases that he describes as “relatively mild,” Burgess is understandably concerned for his health.
“My doctors believe that I’m healthy enough to go to school, but in the back of my mind I need to make sure I’m very diligent in protecting myself,” Burgess said. “As a health teacher, I’m almost too cautious. I haven’t done much of anything other than play golf and I’m miles from people when I play, I never get close to anybody. I very seldom go into a store unless it’s late when there’s hardly anybody in there.
“I am a little bit nervous about that,” he added. “I look at the numbers that are active in Jefferson County and go ‘OK, the odds are pretty much in your favor that you’re not going to run into somebody who has an active (COVID)case.’ I get worried about the people who are asymptomatic, whether they can transmit to me or not.”