High school football Week 2 highlights from central Pa. teams including Susquehannock, Central York, Gettysburg and Lebanon on Friday, August 30, 2019.
York Daily Record
After months of uncertainty, it appears an answer on the restart of fall sports in Pennsylvania is coming this week.
Well, the beginning of an answer.
After announcing a two-week delay to the start of practice due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s “strong recommendation” that sports not be played until Jan. 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the PIAA is scheduled to meet this Friday to discuss the start of fall sports.
Signs point to the organization moving ahead with the season, especially after PIAA associate executive director Melissa Mertz said she was “fairly confident” sports would take place during a radio interview Monday.
On Tuesday, the PIAA Athletic Oversight Committee of the state legislature heard testimony of plans from the PIAA, superintendents, athletic directors and coaches. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said the organization still wants to move forward with high school sports.
“We would like to move forward with fall sports,” Lombardi said during the hearing. “It is worth at least attempting to try.”
Here’s a look back at what’s transpired over the past four months to get us to this point.
What’s happened so far
The York Suburban Trojans get pumped up before a YAIAA Division II football game against Gettysburg in Spring Garden Township on Friday, October 11, 2019. (Photo: Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun)
April 9: On the heels of an announcement from Gov. Wolf that Pennsylvania schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year, the PIAA decided to cancel the remaining winter sports championships and the entire spring season for the 2019-20 school year.
The decision had been widely expected in the weeks following the postponement of the winter playoffs and spring season on March 12. It was the first time since 1919 that the PIAA did not crown basketball champions.
May 20: The National Federation of High School Sports released a 16-page document outlining guidelines for the return of high school sports. The guidelines included significant and fundamentally-altering health and safety measures for “higher-risk” sports like football, wrestling and lacrosse.
For example, even in the third phase of the NFHS’s plan, social distancing would be highly recommended and higher-risk sports would only be allowed to hold modified practices.
Later that day, the PIAA held a board of directors meeting and Lombardi clarified that the NFHS guidelines would not be taken as a mandate. He also said that teams would likely be able to start practicing during the summer once Gov. Wolf moved their counties to the “green” phase of the reopening plan.
“I don’t want to give people false hope, but I am optimistic we can move forward,” Lombardi said.
June 10: Gov. Wolf gave the go-ahead for high school sports activities to resume in counties designated in the “yellow” and “green” phases of the reopening plan.
However, it was announced that school districts would need to implement their own health and safety plans. The PIAA put out a statement asking schools to begin developing their health and safety plans.
While the PIAA had previously said July 1 was the earliest date schools could begin athletic activities, the guidance allowed teams to start earlier once their health and safety plans were board approved.
The state’s guidance also said that school sports would be limited to ” student-athletes, coaches, officials, and staff only.”
“The addition of visitors and spectators will be contingent upon future health conditions within the state and local communities.”
July 1: With most schools having just started voluntary workouts or in the process of finalizing health and safety plans, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced a new mandate that face masks must be worn whenever anyone leaves home.
The order took effect immediately and caused concern and confusion among high school coaches and administrators, who weren’t sure if the order applied to sports.
Two days later, the PIAA put out a statement clarifying that athletes are “not required to wear face coverings while actively engaged in workouts and competition that prevent the wearing of face coverings.”
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July 9: Lampeter-Strasburg becomes the first central Pa. school to shut down voluntary workouts due to COVID-19 concerns. The school put football workouts on hold when a football coach fell ill, according to Lancaster Online.
On July 13, the school put out a statement saying football workouts were canceled for two weeks because a coach had tested positive for COVID-19.
Also on on July 13, Shippensburg (football, basketball) and Cedar Cliff (field hockey, boys’ soccer) suspended workouts when athletes tested positive for the virus.
At least 12 schools in District 3 have postponed workouts at some point this summer due to players testing positive or possibly being exposed to the virus.
More: District 3 programs suspend workouts as athletes, coaches test positive for COVID-19
July 16: The same day the NCAA Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference decided to suspend all sports through the end of 2020, Bob Lombardi said during a PIAA Board of Directors meeting that the organization was “trying to hold serve” and “staying the course” with the start of fall sports.
When taking questions from the media after the meeting, Lombardi said the PIAA was not influenced by surrounding states or colleges when making decisions. He also said the organization did not want to move fall sports to the spring due to the logistical issues, concerns over spring athletes missing two seasons in a row and uncertainty over how the pandemic would be improving by 2021.
“Out intent is to play fall as scheduled, even if it would end up in a shortened or altered fashion,” Lombardi said. “The flipping of those sports … there is a false narrative that the spring is going to be better than the fall and there is no guarantee of that. It’s also fraught with concerns of overuse. Would the spring lose two (seasons) in a row? That’s inadequate.”
In the month since, a number of states including Virginia, Delaware and Colorado have decided to move fall sports to the spring of 2021 with condensed schedules for each season.
July 29: The PIAA voted to start fall sports on time, though with additional health and safety measures. The measure was approved by a 29-3 vote.
At the time, fall sports practices were scheduled to begin Aug. 17 with competitions starting Aug. 20. The start date for football games was Aug. 28.
The PIAA also released “alternate start” plans that allowed schools to delay competitions to September or the beginning of October.
The organization released a 25-page document with specific health guidelines for every sport. Some of the recommendations for football include face shields for players and huddles minimized as much as possible.
The guidelines also state that any team that has one player test positive for COVID-19 needs to quarantine as a team for 14 days.
Lombardi declined to answer a question about concerns over asymptomatic athletes possibly spreading the virus.
It was also reiterated that fans would not be allowed at sporting events due to state restrictions, though Lombardi said he hoped the PIAA could persuade the state to ease restrictions for parents.
More: ‘What if we don’t even try?’ PIAA votes to start fall sports on time, though with health measures
July 30: A day after the PIAA voted to move ahead with fall sports, Norristown Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania decided to suspend fall sports on its own.
The school district released a statement that it would recommend its school board cancel the fall season for all teams due to the pandemic. The Class 6A school planned to offer only virtual learning to its students for the fall semester.
Aug. 3: Three days after the WPIAL (PIAA District 7 comprised of the Pittsburgh area) announced it would be delaying fall sports until September, the Mid Penn became the first conference in District 3 to make the same decision.
The Mid Penn’s delay pushed the start date for practices to Sept. 4, with the first football games pushed to Sept. 24.
The decision came the same day Gov. Wolf expressed concern about contact high school sports being played at schools that moved to completely virtual learning for the fall. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association also announced that day it would postpone both fall and winter sports until at least January.
Later that week, the Lancaster-Lebanon League and YAIAA would also vote to delay sports to September, with football games scheduled to begin Sept. 18. The leagues also decided to move to conference-only play.
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Aug. 6: The day that seemed to be the major turning point of the summer: When Gov. Wolf said he was recommending no sports be played until Jan. 2021.
At a press conference in regards to updates for COVID-19 testing, Wolf was asked whether fans would be allowed at sporting events in the fall. He said the state’s guidance was that “we don’t do any sports until Jan. 1.”
He ended his press conference immediately after making the statement. His office put out a statement later that day reiterating it was a “strong recommendation” for both scholastic and recreational sports, and not a mandate.
The announcement sent shockwaves though the state and sent the PIAA — which claimed to have no prior knowledge of the recommendation — scrambling. The organization put out a statement that it was “tremendously disappointed” in Wolf’s recommendation and that it would meet the next day to “to review this action.”
More: Wolf strongly recommends no high school sports until January, PIAA waits to make response
Aug. 7: With many people bracing for the PIAA to suspend the season during an afternoon meeting, the organization instead voted to delay sports for two weeks and continue a “dialogue” with Wolf’s office during that time.
Lombardi said he had communicated with the governor’s staff since the previous day’s recommendation, but was hoping to meet with them or Wolf himself to convince them that sports could be played safely.
He reiterated the PIAA had concerns about moving fall sports to the spring, but said it would look into the move if “ordered to.”
Also that day, state representative Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, put out a media release stating he’d filed two Right-to-Know requests with the Departments of Education and Health “requesting the data & models used to reach their new recommendations on youth sports.”
Aug. 10: With the PIAA’s decision on hold, more leagues and schools decided on their own not to hold sports. The Philadelphia Public League announced the morning of Aug. 10 it would not hold any sports before Jan. 2021.
Later that morning, Milton Hershey became the second District 3 school to decide not to play sports this fall. The Reading School District voted on Aug. 5 to suspend sports while moving to fully virtual learning for the semester.
That same day, Dr. Levine held a press conference where she said there wasn’t much “granular data” for why sports were recommended not to take place. The decision was based on data from other states — including Georgia — and a higher number of more severe pediatric case counts around the country, she said.
More: Philadelphia Public League’s decision to suspend fall sports puts pressure on PIAA
Aug. 11: A number of Republicans in the state legislature held a press conference in Harrisburg to speak in support of fall sports taking place, and to issue legislation regarding high school athletics.
State Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland/Somerset) proposed legislation that would “allow Pennsylvania’s local school districts to make decisions regarding fall sports and activities.” Rep Jesse Topper’s ((R-Bedford/Franklin/Fulton) would “allow students and families to have the option to continue their education and extracurricular activities for an additional year to make up for the loss of instruction and competition during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.”
Wolf’s recommendation already stated that the final decision on high school sports would be up to school districts. The PIAA had said in the past it was against granting student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.
“When I hear things like ‘It’s not worth the risk’ … We told the kids if you wear a mask, social distance at meetings, split time in the weight room, if you follow these protocols you’ll be allowed to play,” Topper said. “To now come back to them and say you’ve done everything right, but we still don’t have the will to let that happen … We understand there’s inherit risks (to sports). That’s why there’s an ambulance that sits by the football field. That risk-benefit-reward ratio has always been left up to the families.”
The same day, the PIAA sent a letter to Gov. Wolf asking to meet with him or his staff to discuss “possible options for fall sports,” according to media reports.
More: State legislators push for fall sports; Wolf still recommends waiting until 2021
Aug. 13: During a press conference in York, Gov. Wolf again recommended that scholastic sports not be played until Jan. 1, but said he was just “one person that has an opinion.”
He said the focus should be on getting kids back to learning, but that local school districts could do what they wanted. He added that he recommended Pennsylvanians not go to the New Jersey shore this summer, which likely was not followed by many people.
During the same press conference, Dr. Levine noted that the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences had recently decided to suspend sports for the remainder of the calendar year. She also said that other states were reporting children getting sick from COVID-19 and developing long-term effects.
“I’m not sure what they can say that would make me change my sense of what I think is the right thing to do,” Wolf said of the PIAA. “We have to stage this reopening, and getting back to life and to do that, we require a robust testing regime and we’re not there yet.”
The following day, the PIAA met with members of Wolf’s staff about the possible restart of high school sports. The organization put out a statement saying it was concerned the governor’s recommendation would be perceived as a mandate by schools, but that it would meet the following Friday “to discuss the starting of fall sports.”
“PIAA is very aware of the negative impact postponement of fall sports will have upon our 350,000 student-athletes and their families,” the organization said in its statement.
Aug. 18: A day after Mertz said she was “fairly confident” in sports starting, Dr. Levine said during a press conference that the state would not stop the PIAA from moving forward with sports.
But she reaffirmed her and Gov. Wolf’s position that athletics not take place for the remainder of the year.
“The governor has been very clear about that,” Levine said of a potential mandate. “There are no plans to do that.”
The Pennsylvania Senate’s Athletic Oversight Committee heard testimony from six people — including Lombardi — during its hearing Tuesday. Lombardi confirmed that the PIAA is looking into insurance coverage and protection over COVID, but it could be cost prohibitive.
“We will make a final decision on Friday,” Lombardi said. “We would like to move forward with fall sports. … This isn’t a political issue; this is a student participation issue.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also announced Tuesday that fall sports can start in his state next week. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said sports can be played in his state, which has had a planned start date for competition of Oct. 1.
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Signs seem to be pointing to the PIAA voting to proceed with fall sports this Friday.
But even if the PIAA does announce that sports can start next Monday, there will still be plenty to figure out.
Many leagues (including the YAIAA) have already pushed back their start dates to September. Other leagues and individual schools have decided on their own not to play this fall.
More school districts could make the same decision in the coming weeks. Other schools could change their back-to-school plans, which could influence how they attack restarting sports. There could be liability issues that need to be ironed out.
Schedules have already been cut down, and could be reduced even more if additional schools opt not to play. Student-athletes testing positive for the virus will not only suspend teams for two weeks, but could lead to another outcry to suspend the season all together.
The situation has been constantly changing since March, and that doesn’t appear to changing anytime soon.
Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, email@example.com or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.
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