Syracuse schools reintroduce athletics with priorities of safety, mental health

Syracuse schools reintroduce athletics with safety as priority

The district has made a reopening plan for sports that puts emphasis on following the CDC and the Department of Health recommendations.
Published: March 29, 2021
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Nottingham’s Zyonaha Glen defends Liverpool’s Navaeh Wingate during a March 10, 2021, game at Liverpool High School.

A couple of weeks after the Syracuse City School District allowed sports to take place after a year of being canceled due to COVID-19, the athletic supervisor at Nottingham High School, Alton Hicks, got a call from a student who wanted to play football but his parent wouldn’t let him play. When athletics were first reintroduced, Hicks himself was also one of those parents.

“I have a 15-year-old son and my wife’s a nurse,” he said. “At the beginning, we decided not to allow him to play. But then as things went on, and we saw the precautions they were putting in place for the high-risk sports, we felt a little better about it.”

The district has made a reopening plan for athletics that puts emphasis on following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health. According to James Palumbo, the supervisor of athletics at Corcoran High School, the priorities are to wear a mask at all times and to make certain that people are socially distant during meetings. Coaching meetings, for example, are normally held in-person in classrooms. Now, all of these meetings are conducted through Microsoft Teams.

“The focus is trying to reduce exposure by reducing contact,” Palumbo said. “The other contact that we do have is really just practices and games. And any of those potential things that we normally would do face-to-face, we just do through the digital format now.”

As games are beginning again, Jolene Todd, athletic director for the Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler and the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, said that they are still working on the issue of whether there can be spectators. 

“If we are allowed to have spectators, we will have to limit the capacity,” she said. “It’s either two per player, or 50% capacity I believe.”

A new stadium was built at PSLA at Fowler and completed in the fall. Sports teams have not been able to hold games in their new stadium yet.

In the district as a whole, the sports currently practicing are football, swimming, soccer, volleyball, tennis, cross country, and cheerleading.

When Mikayla Bundrage, the varsity cheer coach at Henninger High School, first heard that teams were being allowed to practice again, she said she was happy, nervous, excited, and worried all at once.

“Happy to start, but worried because I found out about a week before it actually happened after a few start dates were rousted back,” she said. “Then with all the COVID guidelines and keeping the girls safe, I am also worried because I can’t protect them outside of practice. If one of them caught COVID, our season would end. But I keep positive thoughts, masks, and sanitizer to make sure everyone is safe while with me.”

Bundrage said that it can be difficult for the girls to wear masks in a hot gym, but they have been doing well. They cheered at their first basketball game on Saturday. Competitions, however, are completely virtual and require teams to send in videos to be judged.

The outdoor spring sports will begin in April, though it is too early to know what COVID-19 limitations will be like then.

“Our mantra is to be flexible, because things change rapidly,” Palumbo said. The biggest thing he stresses to people is that the pandemic is still going on. 

“Even though we are opening up for more participation and more spectators, we’ve all got to be cautious,” he said. “And we’ve all got to be aware of social distancing. As things settle in, we’re confident that we can go beyond what we’re doing right now. That’s just good advice — safety’s first. And we can make everything work as long as we’re focused on that.”

Alongside safety, there is also the aspect of mental health. Hicks said that it has been very difficult for kids who have either been mentally or physically spent due to lack of engagement, lack of socialization, and no access to gyms and weight rooms. One of the biggest things Hicks pushes for is sports getting kids more engaged in school.

“And we have seen that,” he said. “More kids are coming to school; more kids are doing work. So that’s really helped us out here in the city. It’s good having something to do for them to be social, because a lot of things were going on during the pandemic that were not good for our kids’ emotional states and that social and emotional peace.”

Now that the kids can get back together under safety guidelines, sports allow them to see their friends, socialize, get out the house, and have activities to do. 

“I think that’s kind of changed the morale of a lot of kids,” Hicks said. “The kids are feeling better.”