It’s been great to be back. High school football in the fall of 2020 had minimal fins, but there were still bands, and it had a good atmosphere. And by Spring, with baseball outdoors, everything felt normal.
But high school basketball is not the same without fans, which is what was the case for a good part of last season, until parents were allowed back in, with limited capacities.
This year, it’s been much more fun. Our first games of the year on Central Jersey Sports Radio saw a very talented Rutgers Prep girls team that is a favorite to contend for the last-ever Tournament of Champions title play in front of a few hundred fans at Franklin, then Bound Brook hosting Somerville from right down the road in a gym where, even though it was about 80-percent full, my broadcast partner Justin Sontupe and I could hardly hear each other.
Yes, it’s been great to be back. But how long will it last?
Talking to coaches and athletic directors, and reading the news, there’s a very tentative vibe around high school hoops right now. Some teams have been shut down. Timothy Christian may be out for a bit. St. Joseph-Metuchen had more than a half-dozen players out for COVID-related issues (that’s the now-famous “hedge” when a player may not have COVID, but was in the general vicinity of someone who did, or may be suspected of having it). There are many others who’ve had a player or two out here and there.
Some worry we may not even get to finish this season. What if too many teams have it? How will it affect the county and NJSIAA Tournaments, where there’s little wiggle room for rescheduling when games are every other day?
The NHL has paused with COVID cases running rampant. The pros won’t be in the Olympics, either. And Rutgers basketball is going to have a lengthy shutdown, too, costing the Scarlet Knights at least a couple of games, if they can’t be rescheduled.
The optimist might say that if everyone is vaxxed and only has mild symptoms, once they get through it, maybe they won’t be affected the rest of the year. And that’s possible.
But a piece of legislation in Trenton could be the savior of the basketball season.
Maybe you’ve read about the “test and stay” or “test and return” program the state is working on for schools. Of course, the impetus here is to not interrupt students’ education, but it could benefit high school sports this winter as well.
The idea is that for unvaccinated students who are close contacts with someone confirmed to have COVID in schools, they must quarantine for up to two weeks, with no option to “test” out of it. Even if they test negative, they can’t shorten that quarantine period.
But whether its Omicron or Delta, as cases skyrocket in New Jersey and across the country, that’s putting a lot of kids back into remote learning, although it’s really “self-learning.” In my home district in Hillsborough, teachers aren’t doing lessons on line. Rather, they have to learn for themselves and complete the work on their own. That’s even worse than when districts were in hybrid mode at the end of 2020 and for the vast majority of 2020-21.
“Test and stay” would allow students exposed to a COVID case to take a series of rapid tests over several days before arriving at school, with no need for quarantine, as long as they have no symptoms. If they’re clean, they’re in. If they test positive, they get back in the car and go home.
President Biden has advocated for such programs, already in use in states like California, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The CDC has now recommended such a policy. Democratic State Senator Troy Singleton of Burlington wrote the Murphy administration a letter urging it to adopt the practice. And on Monday, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli confirmed the state is working with school nurses in some districts to get “test and stay” programs running as early as January, when students come back from break.
It seems to be a common sense approach, as some parents are more reluctant to get their children vaccinated – especially younger ones – than they were to get themselves vaccinated.
The entire Rutgers basketball team was fully vaccinated, and so was the coaching staff. Yet here they are in a COVID shutdown as it runs through the Scarlet Knights like a fast break. So whatever facts you decide to listen to, there’s proof positive in right in Piscataway that vaccinations are not foolproof.
Even the jabbed can get it and spread it.
Testing is the common sense move. It still may not be foolproof, but if a student has no symptoms, and COVID can’t be detected by a test, that’s really the safest way to conduct the business of education and make sure no one gets left sitting at home with their books, or their basketball.