Amid coronavirus fears, robotics team sent home from Rochester

Members of Southold/Greenport Robotics Team R.I.C.E. 870 were left feeling disappointed Thursday after they traveled on a bus all the way to Rochester for a competition — only to be told after they unpacked their equipment that the event had been cancelled.

A group of over 35 students and faculty from the North Fork team climbed aboard a coach bus Wednesday morning and headed to the Rochester Institute of Technology for the regional robotics competition, scheduled March 13 and 14. Last year, the team nailed down a first-place victory and was invited to attend the FIRST Robotics world championship in Detroit, Mich. 

In high spirits, team members traveled from their hotel to RIT’S Gordon Field House Thursday morning and unloaded the robot, only to be informed the regularly scheduled practice had been cancelled. That was followed by word that the entire event — the 2020 Finger Lakes Regional FIRST Robotics Competition — was cancelled as a precautionary measure in the wake of the coronavirus.

The team will return to the North Fork on the bus Friday, said Southold High School math teacher and team co-advisor Christine Schade.

In the midst of the virus outbreak, team members had some concerns that the competition may be canceled, Ms. Schade said.  She said she and co-adviser Bob Gammon were frequently updated on the status of the competition by event officials, who said Wednesday night that they were in constant communication with the Monroe County Department of Public Health. 

With that, the team packed up and boarded the bus Wednesday. “It was going to be an hour-by-hour thing,” Ms. Schade said. “They warned us that we could start, and then the health department could shut us down.” 

Team co-president and Southold senior Joe Silvestro said the team was eager and prepared to compete Thursday. “We were going to play all of the qualification matches today and then do playoffs tomorrow,” Joe said. “We were feeling optimistic about that.”

But soon after arriving at the hall, the team was approached by event officials and informed the competition was being shut down. 

“We had to pack up everything and leave immediately,” Ms. Schade said. 

It was especially difficult for the roughly 15 seniors students on the team, Ms. Schade said, who have logged close to 300 hours since early January working on the robot after school and on weekends to prepare for the competitions. 

“It was just heartbreaking,” Joe said, “to know that all the work we put in this year and every year before that has built up to this year. In our minds, this was our year to improve upon what we did in years prior. That was kind of ripped away; we lost that opportunity.”

Team co-president and Southold senior Drew Wolf said it was a “quick let-down” after the team seemed to be reassured they were competing. Co-adviser Bob Gammon said he’s proud of how the students are handling the situation.

“They’re taking it in strides best they can,” Mr. Gammon said. “Kids put hundreds of hours into it; you feel more disappointed for them than anything. … But again, this is a life lesson, and no one has a crystal ball and things like this happen.”

The team will remain in Rochester Thursday and are expected to be bused home Friday morning, Ms. Schade said.

A basic event registration package for the 2020 FIRST robotics competition, which includes participation at one regional event, a competition kick-off kit and associated materials, ranges from $4,000 to $6,000. It’s unclear at this time how the district will be financially impacted by the competition cancellations, team mentor and Southold school board vice president Judi Fouchet said. 

Meanwhile, Southold Union Free School District announced Thursday online that schools would be closed Friday, March 13, and Monday, March 16, to conduct a deep cleaning of the buildings, according to a message from joint superintendent David Gamberg. Greenport schools remained closed Thursday and Friday, and are expected to reopen Monday.