Once all the dust had settled from the first full week of September, area high school sports fans had a fall season to look forward to – even if it was a modified version. Section III surveyed its schools and, while not overwhelming, 58 percent of them stated they wanted to have a fall season, so the section’s executive council approved it on Friday afternoon. This means that soccer, field hockey, cross country, girls tennis, girls swimming and boys golf – the so-called “low-risk” sports – would begin practice on September 21 and, after 10 state-mandated practices, begin the season around the start of October, but not hold any sectional championships since not every school was opting in to the season.
Two days earlier, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced that the “high-risk” sports of football, boys and girls volleyball and cheerleading would get moved to a “Fall Sports II” schedule, commencing on March 1 and ending on April 30. With those high-risk sports still not cleared to do anything beyond practice, it was agreed to wait until early 2021, by which point the circumstances and state rules may have changed. Those dates were also decided not to overlap too much with winter sports (whose plans remain in full) or spring sports, which NYSPHSAA moved back to an April 19 start date with every intention of finishing by the end of June if they can get around Regents exams and graduations.
All of the obstacles to resuming high school sports are well-known, from all the safety measures that have to be followed to the strain of state budget cuts up to 20 percent from years past. These were largely the reasons why, just as Section III announced its return to the field, Cooperstown, Remsen and Waterville said they would not have fall sports. As smaller districts they faced greater hurdles due the reasons noted above, and in Cooperstown’s case students had not yet returned to school even on a hybrid basis. Of greater concern was that, up north, Watertown and Indian River announced similar plans to wait until 2021, though there was a possibility those plans might get revisited based on further data.
The decision by Section III to do fall sports reflected a complete split in what sections across New York State were doing. It all began with Section VIII (Nassau County, Long Island) moving everything to 2021 despite vociferous protests from students, parents and coaches, and though the section did say they would revisit the situation once school started, no minds were changed at the outset. Then, after initially saying they would go ahead, Long Island’s other representatives, Section XI (Suffolk County), said they, too, would postpone until the new year. In both instances, these were regions hard-hit by COVID-19 at the outset, which may have made districts more cautious about bringing back any school activities.
And the split continued to present itself when Section IX, mostly based in the Catskills between the Southern Tier and Hudson Valley, announced that it would also shelve sports until 2021. However, they took a different approach in Section I (lower Hudson Valley), pushing back the start until September 29 but still planning to play, a similar plan to what was going on in Section V, which includes the Rochester area. Section VI (Buffalo area) and Section II (Capital District) appeared to be following Section III’s lead in making a go at it even if a portion of the schools within all of these sections found that the economics or the safety precautions would make the whole thing impossible to pull off.
Yet this was only the beginning of changes hitting high school sports, and girls swimming didn’t even make it to the fall in either the Salt City Athletic Conference, Frontier League or Onondaga High School League. All of them moved to Fall Season II in March and April, for multiple reasons. Part of it was that the facilities some of the larger schools used, such as Cazenovia College and Le Moyne College, were still closed to any outside group. And the high school venues would be closed to most spectators due to state regulations about only allowing two spectators per competitor. Now they will join the volleyball and football teams in starting on March 1 and finishing in April, hopefully after boys swimming in the winter season.
Decisions about whether to have fall sports or not spread into the following week and included some big decisions. A total of 12 schools in the Frontier League, most notably Watertown, Indian River and South Jefferson, opted to go to Fall Sports II in March and April, stating together that their focus was first on having the kids return to school and have that go well before allowing any kind of after-school activities. This marked the largest group of Section III schools to abandon a fall slate, the large schools joined by Alexandria Bay, Belleville Henderson, Thousand Islands, Sackets Harbor, General Brown, Lyme and LaFargeville, but Beaver River, South Lewis, Lowville, Watertown IHC and Copenhagen could still play.
Then a big school decided to get away from fall sports, which did not go unnoticed. Fulton’s Board of Education held a special meeting early in the week and decided the risk of COVID-19 was too great to move forward. Needless to say, students and parents were not pleased. Two days later, a group of 200-plus Fulton students walked out of school for an hour-long protest, joined by some parents and teachers. They didn’t change the minds of the powers-that-be, but they did make clear that they felt their voices were not getting heard in the ongoing debate. They also were stating just how much of a mental toll six months of no activities was taking on them, and now for them the wait would get longer.
And then it got even more perilous for fall sports when, late in the week, Syracuse city schools bowed out and joined the crowd going to Fall Season II. To somd degree the city schools were most vulnerable among CNY Counties League entities because their high schools (Henninger, Corcoran, Nottingham, PSLA Fowler and Institute of Technology Central) started all-remote, with no indication of when they were going to return in person. Plus so many of the students use public transportation with Centro buses, adding to the complications. Thus Syracuse, and then Solvay, joined Rochester and Buffalo public schools in opting out of the fall season, putting the entire enterprise in a more perilous position.
So when all was said and done, who was left to start September 21? Only soccer, field hockey, cross country, golf and tennis teams in the suburbs of Syracuse which constitute large portions of the CNY Counties League and OHSL, along with the entire Tri-Valley League. However, the Syracuse city schools, most of the Frontier League and portions of the Center State Conference all backed away in the month since low-risk fall sports were allowed to move forward. Either it puts greater pressure on the schools that did decide to stay, or increases the questions of whether the fall season can be pulled off in any form, with fear over COVID-19 spread seemingly dictating all of the decisions from above.