A local petition calling for “high risk” winter sports to be played is gaining support, despite increases in statewide COVID-19 cases.

South Kortright Central School boys basketball coach Aaron Kaufman penned a petition on Change.org addressed to “State Leaders, School Administrators and the members of the NYSPHAA,” asking for guidance on how to play “high risk” sports amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. At press time, the petition, titled “Let our kids play ...” had 759 signatures.

“The inspiration behind creating this petition is simple. It is to support the athletes that I coach and the athletes across the state that are desperately looking to play the sports that they love,” Kaufman said.

“I felt I owed it to them to speak out as a concerned coach as an independent voice. We have seniors that are wondering everyday if they will ever get the chance to put that uniform on one last time,” he continued.

COVID-19 numbers continue to grow. On Thursday, Dec. 3, the U.S. reached an all-time high for for COVID-19 hospitalizations at 100,667, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The number of hospitalizations has more than doubled over the past month, while new daily cases are averaging 210,000 and deaths are averaging 1,800 per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Despite growing COVID-19 numbers, questions regarding high schools sports continue to be raised across the country.

“Trying to figure out how there is College California basketball teams playing, soon to be Pro teams playing but not High School teams playing,” LeBron James said via Twitter on Dec. 4.

On Nov. 17, the NYSPHSAA announced the start of “high risk” winter sports would be moved until Jan. 4. High risk sports, as designated by the New York State Department of Health, that were affected by the NYSPHSAA decision are basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling.

Until New York state officials grant authorization, NYSPHSAA member schools are not able to participate in sports that are deemed to have a high risk of spreading COVID-19.

“I don’t know if they understand where decisions are being made pertaining to ‘high risk’ sports,” NYSPHSAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Zayas told The Daily Star. 

“The decision lies with New York state officials. School administrators don’t have a say or input right now, and I mean I think that that’s the same way though, that other decisions are being made. If it’s about restaurants or bars, or retail establishments, and that’s the way that that’s occurred for the last eight months and I think that we have to be respectful of the process,” he continued.

Low and moderate risk winter sports were permitted to begin Nov. 30, as the association previously announced. Low and moderate risk sports include bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, skiing and swimming and diving.

The petition asks for guidance from state officials on what to do in terms of altering traditional game-play. The petition cites playing without a jump ball, playing while wearing masks and hand sanitizer between whistles, as potential options to help make play more viable.

“Those are so far into the details that that’s not what’s keeping basketball from being played right now,” Zayas said.

“I get inundated every day with emails with people that say, ‘why can’t we require the basketball teams to sit on opposite sides of the court’ and that’s the solution. Or, ‘why can’t we no longer have jump balls’ and that’s the solution. ‘Why can’t we have kids use sanitizer between every quarter, have sanitizing breaks’ and that would be the one variable that’s not permitting basketball to play right now,” he continued.

As state, local, and federal officials gear up to make challenging decisions regarding the impending “second wave” of COVID-19 cases, high school athletic competition has taken a back seat.

In a statement to The Daily Star, Kaufman said he believes that playing high school sports in the middle of a global pandemic is a necessary risk, because of the positives that athletics bring to athletes, specially, their mental well-being and life-lessons learned while playing.

“I just can’t say it enough,” Zayas said. “I certainly want high school sports to be played. I am not of the opinion that we should not have high school sports. But, I think it needs to be done in a manner that has risk minimization as its focus, and it needs to be done in accordance with state officials authorization.  

“I think people also need to understand that we have open lines of communication with state officials. But, as infection rates and hospitalizations increase throughout the state the effectiveness of our advocacy efforts unfortunately decreases,” he continued.

Kaufman said the high school sports should not pose any larger risk than normal day-to-day activity.

“An outbreak could happen at any time, we’ve got families that go grocery shopping everyday, they go to Walmart everyday, they’re on a school bus everyday, they’re in school. You know, an outbreak could happen any time,” Kaufman said.

“I think unfortunately if they do have a winter season there will be, of course there’s going to be COVID cases. I don’t think there’s going to be any way around it,” he continued. “You know, I think that’s just the nature of the beast at the moment.”

New York state schools, particularly small schools, with small budgets, do not necessarily have the resources to pursue athletic seasons in the middle of a pandemic, especially with statewide budget cuts.

When asked how he would account for additional travel and contract tracing involved with an athletics season, Kaufman answered, “I don’t have an answered for that.” However, he said that students intermingling on school buses and travel to BOCES, where multiple schools send students, already undermines cohorting in schools.

And there is a difference between high school and higher levels, Zayas said.

“There’s a lot of resources at those levels that high schools simply don’t have. To do COVID testing for a collegiate football team its $500,000 a year. To do COVID testing for a collegiate basketball team it’s about $250,000 a year. Just to test every single basketball player, if you have 20 kids on a basketball team, to test them, at a rate of $138 a test for 10 weeks, I think that’s $27,000. School districts are not in a position to start spending hundreds of thousands of dollars testing student-athletes,” Zayas said.

“We need to be cognoscente of how decisions are made and the impact of infection rates, cluster hotspots on us being able to participate at this point and time,” he continued.

Phone and email messages left with the South Kortright Central School superintendent were not returned.

A full copy of the petition can be found at https://www.change.org/p/nysphsaa-we-are-section-4-lets-do-more.

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