Editorial: The time to return to school sports is here

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hours of painful concern for a lot of Long Islanders, as we worry over the health of our older family members, the vulnerable and those directly impacted by the virus.

One group of Long Islanders who have suffered greatly because of the coronavirus is our youth. And it’s not a small segment of the population. More than a half-million students attend public or private schools on Long Island and they’ve endured many setbacks in the past 10 months, both educationally and socially.

Think for a moment about how much our students have lost with many of them still not in school five days a week. They had to navigate the challenges of our districts not being fully prepared to move to virtual learning last spring. They missed out on graduations, award ceremonies and proms. Many of our younger students are falling behind in key learning areas like reading and early math. It’s almost impossible to imagine how young students from low-income families, or ones where both parents are out of the house each day, have been getting by at all.

One criticism we in the media sometimes face is the perception that we overvalue the importance of school sports. We never miss a high school football championship game, but often aren’t aware of many academic achievements by students. While we understand why some people feel that way, this past year has reinforced just how important athletics and recreation can be for our youth. In Riverhead, when it was for a time understood there would be no sports regardless of pandemic recovery, it was impossible not to notice how many kids took to the traffic circle on Route 58 or a Board of Education meeting to express their displeasure.

Scholastic sports are a critical part of the high school experience for reasons that go far beyond the final score. The students who participate learn to make healthy decisions, acquire important communication and leadership skills and are often among the top academic performers in a school setting.

While we agree school sports were properly shelved this past year, it is also very much time for them to resume — provided it is done responsibly.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said this week that a decision to allow high-risk sports to be played over the final months of the school year will affect 21,500 students across the county.

That’s thousands of kids whose primary interests were derailed for much of the time they have left in school. These are students who will now be more active and have a renewed sense of purpose.

With proper guidelines in place, we’re pleased that a school sports season that once seemed far-fetched is about to become a reality.

We wish every one of our local student-athletes good health and success on the playing fields in the weeks ahead. You’ve faced challenges no generation before you has had to endure. May each goal scored and run batted in taste ever sweeter.

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