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Amid a pandemic that led to virtual classes, quarantines and the discomfort of wearing masks during high-intensity competition, local high school sports teams have still found ways to practice and compete during the 2020-21 academic year.

Despite many of New Haven’s high schools remaining closed for in-person learning for much of the school year, their athletic teams managed to practice and compete under COVID-restricted circumstances during the fall, winter and spring seasons. And as Connecticut’s vaccination rate increases and New Haven Public Schools completes its reopening process, coaches and administrators from local schools expressed optimism about the possibility of even more playing opportunities for their students.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to work to allow our kids to participate. I’m really happy with what we were able to do this fall compared to what it looked like at the beginning [of the school year],” said Erik Patchkofsky, the director of physical education, health and athletics for New Haven Public Schools.

New Haven high school sports have experienced a tumultuous year of cancellations and reversed decisions based on changing public health circumstances. The initial wave of COVID-19 last year abruptly scrapped basketball championship plans in March 2020 and canceled the spring athletic season that followed.

Last fall, the New Haven Health Department canceled the city’s high school football for the entire semester — despite the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference allowing it to continue in most areas throughout the rest of the state. Within a few weeks, the conference reversed its decision, and the regular football season was canceled statewide, crushing the hopes of New Haven student-athletes who wanted more opportunities to play. According to Patchkofsky, the city’s volleyball teams also faced an almost-completely canceled fall season, save for a handful of outdoor intradistrict opportunities.

All sports except wrestling were able to return in some form for the school district’s winter season, though challenges continued. It was only after two separate quarantine-induced cancellations and a last-minute change in the season schedule that two rival New Haven high schools, Wilbur Cross and James Hillhouse, were finally able to face off in basketball in March, successfully continuing an unbroken town tradition going back over a century.

According to Patchkofsky, the district’s basketball season was condensed from the usual 21 regular season games to just 12 this year.

At the Hopkins School, one of New Haven’s private schools, administrators took an even more conservative approach than the public school system towards student athletics. Rocco DeMaio, the school’s director of athletics and head baseball coach, explained that the closest any Hopkins sports teams got to playing any games all year was through “inter-squad scrimmages” involving only Hopkins students and held near the end of the winter season.

Unlike New Haven public schools, Hopkins opened for partial in-person learning in fall 2020. But its hybrid model — with half of the students learning virtually and unable to attend practice — meant that in-person athletics would still be very difficult, according to DeMaio.

But on Monday, DeMaio said, Hopkins joined the area’s public high schools in inviting all students back for in-person learning. He explained that the school’s first formal games of the year will be held this Saturday, featuring spring athletic teams.

“It was a really tough year. … I think the kids missed out on a lot of physical, social, mental, emotional wellness, but we’re really excited to have it starting this week,” said DeMaio.

For all sports, high school student-athletes have all had to wear masks while playing and practicing in limited capacities. Harold Haughton, the athletic facilitator for Wilbur Cross High School, said that this new pandemic-era challenge has even changed athletes’ strategies.

 “Having to play with your mask on, which is very, very difficult, actually changes your game and the way you’re breathing with the mask on,” Haughton said. “So that was a big challenge [for student-athletes].”

Logistics have also posed new difficulties for the area’s high school athletics. Patchkofsky made the decision earlier in the year to host all district basketball games within the Floyd Little Athletic Center at Hillhouse High School, in order to more closely monitor COVID prevention strategies. This decision involved coordinating with three public schools carrying out sports programs: Wilbur Cross, Hillhouse and Career High School.

Patchkofsky said scheduling has now also involved coordination with the Department of Public Health — as Floyd Little Athletic Center was designated as a vaccination site for Yale New Haven Health in January.

According to Patchkofsky, public health precautions seem to be working for the student-athletes. He said the only instances of forced team quarantine have been the Hillhouse basketball team’s two quarantines this winter and a couple of soccer team quarantines in the fall — all of which he said were due to COVID-exposure from outside programs.

Though reports of a rise in U.S. vaccination rates have come alongside news of rising infections countrywide, the New Haven coaches and administrators who spoke with the News said they were cautiously optimistic about the prospects of high school sports for the rest of 2021. 

Haughton said New Haven’s public school system is now set to have a full spring sports season. And according to Haughton and DeMaio, there are even tentative conversations about a full return to football in the fall — one of the only programs that has not been offered at all since 2019.

“I’m pretty optimistic, and the talk is pretty optimistic,” DeMaio said. “This spring will be telling in how we make it through athletics — outdoors, for the most part. Those discussions are really gonna start ramping up soon. We haven’t really talked about the fall yet but everything we mentioned so far seems to be pretty optimistic.”

New Haven public high school students were able to return to optional in-person classes on Monday as part of the final step of the district’s reopening process, following over a year of remote learning.

Clay Jamieson | clay.jamieson@yale.edu