PIAA board approves start of fall sports season

Red Lion vs Northeastern during football action on Horn Field in Red Lion, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Red Lion would win the game 41-28. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The PIAA's board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to move forward with a plan that would see fall sports start with a normal schedule, but with a number of precautionary measures. 

The move came as an increasing number of school districts throughout Pennsylvania have declined to send students back to classrooms in the fall while the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in the state and nationally.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said it is up to individual school districts to decide whether they will have in-person, virtual or hybrid schooling, but the type of class meetings won't impact a team's ability to participate in fall sports.

Because of policies that allow students who chose a cyber education to participate in sports, schools offering fully virtual learning would not prevent the student-athletes from playing their sport.

York Suburban and South Western are the first two York County districts to approve hybrid returns to the classroom, while West Shore became the first school district in York County to move all classes online to begin the year. 

West York Area school board members decided on Tuesday to adopt a hybrid model instead of an earlier plan for a full reopening.

The PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Steering Committee (SMAC) previously voted unanimously to approve the start of fall sports on Aug. 10 with heat acclimation and allow full practices on Aug. 17, provided safety guidelines and protocols are followed.

PIAA sports medicine committee votes unanimously that fall sports should start as scheduled

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine declined Tuesday to endorse the sports oversight body's plan. Instead, she said the same data being used to decide how students will safely return to the classroom should be used to make choices about athletics.

Dr. Rachel Levine declines to support recommendation that high school sports start on time

Although the PIAA board of directors accepted the various committees' recommendations for fall sports, the vote on the organization's Return To Competition guidelines for football faced some opposition. 

Upper Merion High School principal and PIAA board member Jonathan Bauer was one of the three votes against the guidelines, citing the inconsistencies between the return to school and return to sports protocols as why he and the Pennsylvania Principals Association don't agree with the guidelines.

"I think they're trying to do what's best to keep student-athletes safe, but I just don't think those same guidelines hold during the school day," Bauer said in a phone interview. "As a principal, you're responsible for the kids for the entire day — from when they get off the bus until they're done with their day. So, if we're to keep them safe during the day with masking requirements and social distancing requirements and we can't adhere to those same things while playing athletics, then that's the paradox to us."

Football, soccer, field hockey, golf, cross country, tennis and girls' volleyball were all approved Wednesday to begin their seasons on time in August.

Some requirements for a return of football are: face shields are recommended for players on the field and on the sidelines, team boxes are extended to the 10-yard lines, the ball should be cleaned on a rotation and teams can minimize huddling.

During the meeting, the board approved three potential plans for the fall sports seasons to begin. The first would be the normal start in August. Additionally, schools could choose to begin their competitions the week of Sept. 14, or in the final option, no later than Oct. 5.

As part of the SMAC vote, it was revealed that one positive test would force a team into a 14-day quarantine. 

Lombardi said team members who didn't test positive wouldn't be able to practice, but said they wouldn't be sitting idle when asked if he was concerned about athletes being injured after not practicing for two weeks. 

At this time, the PIAA is prepared for football games to be held without spectators to comply with the state's requirement for fewer than 250 people at outdoor events. For other outdoor sports, Lombardi said, it is likely some fans will be allowed to attend.

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It's also possible that the fall sports season could be altered or halted by Gov. Tom Wolf, the state Department of Health or the state Department of Education.

— Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.