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‘Let Them Play,’ Queens Community Leaders Rally Calling for Public High School Sports to Resume

Photo is courtesy Friends of James Johnson
Caption: Queens players, coaches and community leaders rallied near Roy Wilkins Park for the return of public high school sports.

Feb. 8, 2021 By Christina Santucci

Queens community leaders, coaches and athletes are calling on city officials to allow high school sports to restart, citing the benefits to players’ mental health and college prospects.

More than 100 people gathered in St. Albans Saturday to push the city’s Public School Athletic League (PSAL) to return to action – nearly 11 months after sports were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have kids from all over asking the same thing: Let us play,” said James Johnson, the rally’s organizer.

Johnson, who is now running for the Council seat held by I. Daneek Miller, played football and basketball — and ran track — when he attended high school at Campus Magnet in Cambria Heights. “If you put me in these kids’ shoes, I would go crazy,” the former running back said.

All sports have been suspended in the city’s public high schools since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, some Catholic and private schools in the city resumed parts of their athletic programs in the fall, but are awaiting the go-ahead for other activities like basketball.

Last year, the state laid out guidelines for sports to be played during the pandemic, breaking down activities into three groups: “low-risk” like cross country running, “moderate-risk” like soccer and softball, and “high-risk” like football and basketball. Low- and moderate- risk activities were permitted to resume in July so long as areas had met certain health-related benchmarks.

In January, Cuomo updated state guidance, allowing “high-risk” competitions and tournaments to return starting Feb. 1 – if county health departments gave the OK. In nearby Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester counties, officials have already announced plans to restart their programs.

Johnson said the continued suspension of sports programs has deeply impacted student athletes of color in the PSAL. “We are asking for the same treatment and fairness,” he said.

Braneyda Pierre, a 17-year-old student at Campus Magnet, hasn’t run or been inside a gym since March 2020. “It just hurts not to be able to run my last year,” she said.

She still holds out hope that the PSAL could resume sports so that she can compete again in her events: the 4×400-meter relay and 300-meter dash. “I would love to finish what I started,” she said.

Nankouma Dioubate, a junior at Epic High School in South Ozone Park where he plays point guard, called basketball an integral part of his life. “How is it fair? How are other cities and states starting, and the PSAL is not starting?” he asked.

For the best student athletes, games give them a chance to show off their skills to college coaches in hopes of landing a scholarship to play at the collegiate level – and possibly even higher. A number of professional athletes like Cole Anthony, Kyle O’Quinn and Tina Charles have gotten their start in Queens high schools.

Johnson said that youth sports also provide a routine for players, help young people develop social skills and boost kids’ mental health. “These are things that build character to be a successful adult,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that details on the resumption of the city’s PSAL will be announced soon but the city will be paying close attention to the health risks.

“Any PSAL return plan will adhere to all applicable city and state health rules and the public health situation in the city and more details will be available soon,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the DOE.

Queens parochial and independent schools are also in a holding pattern as they await a green light to resume some sports this winter. Council Member Bob Holden sent a letter Feb. 2 to Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on behalf of schools in his central Queens district asking for further information about resuming “high-risk” activities.

“Starting up sports, with safety measures implemented to keep everyone safe, is imperative to help our youth navigate these turbulent times,” Holden wrote.

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