EDITORIAL: School and safety first

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Bob Lombardi

After this week, it seems the PIAA might not be in the same ballpark with Pennsylvania’s health experts and school administrators on the question of whether it’s safe to play high school sports this year.

As school boards across the state wrestle with whether they can safely bring students back to class while COVID-19 still rages — and some deciding they can’t — the athletic association’s board of directors Wednesday approved a plan for fall sports to start with a normal schedule, albeit with precautionary measures. 

“Our schools are doing a terrific job with their health and safety plans,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi told the (Greensburg) Tribune-Review’s Chris Harlan, noting recreational leagues are managing to compete. Schools are “creating a safer environment than those recreational programs. So, why shouldn’t the safer environment get the opportunity to play too?”

More:PIAA board approves start of fall sports season

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

More:CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

Well, for one thing, it’s not clear at all that school officials feel they’re doing a “terrific job” with their back-to-school (or not) plans.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators earlier this week asked the Wolf administration for specific recommendations as superintendents and school boards mull whether to bring students back, hold classes online or offer some combination of both.

“No tools have been given to school districts. Guidelines are best practices and suggestions and ideas. They are not specific recommendations,” Mark DiRocco, the association’s executive director, told the Associated Press after a call with administration officials.

He noted school officials do not have the expertise to make these decisions.

“We’re going to do the best we can to keep our kids and our staff members safe, but if something happens down the line, we learn a month from now we should’ve been doing ‘X’ instead of ‘Y,’ we want it to be known that you put that decision in the hands of your local superintendent and your local school board members to make those calls, and they’re not public health experts,” DiRocco said.

For her part, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who was on Monday’s call with the school administrators, said the return of sports and the return to the classroom should be based on the same data, Harlan reported.

The administration has given the state’s 500 school districts permission to restart in-person instruction with school board-approved plans that will be provided to the state.

With the first day of school just weeks away for some, one of York County’s 16 districts, West Shore, is planning to begin the school year with online-only classes. The others are planning hybrid models, although one superintendent noted state guidance can turn on a dime.

“(I)t actually changes by the minute,” York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams told his school board Monday.

In approving their fall sports plan, PIAA officials said it’s up to schools to provide a “reasonably safe environment” for competition, but district seem iffy if they can keep children safe in classes, hallways and lunch lines, much less on fields and in locker rooms.

And as we’ve seen this week in Major League Baseball, even the most cautious plans can quickly fall apart in the face of this virus.

We can understand folks wanting to give kids something to look forward to, especially after they’ve missed out on so much already this year.

But the most important thing right now is protecting their health and stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The games can wait if they must.