The PIAA on Wednesday pushed forward with plans to stage fall sports, offering high schools three scenarios for returning to competition despite COVID-19 concerns.
The board of directors of the organization that oversees high school sports in the state approved plans to resume play in fall sports, providing schools with staggered start-date options to allow athletes to return to the arena for the first time since winter sports were canceled by the outbreak in mid-March.
The announcement came in the midst of growing uncertainty about back-to-school plans for districts throughout the commonwealth, and despite skepticism from Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who on Tuesday declined to endorse the recommendation to return to competition by the PIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
On a Zoom call with media members, PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi spoke passionately about the need for schools to try to provide students with the opportunity to compete in athletics.
“We feel it is vitally important to give our student athletes every opportunity to be student athletes,” Lombardi said. “We’re advocates for them. Educational-based athletics are vital to the growth, health, development and involvement of student athletes and their ultimate success.
“We’re trying our darnedest.”
The PIAA offered three options for schools:
1. Regular start, which will commence with heat acclimatization for football Aug. 10 and practices for other sports Aug. 17. Under this option, football games could start Aug. 28 and games in other sports could start Sept. 4.
2. Alternate start, which will allow for the same start dates for heat acclimatization for football and practices for other sports but would push back the kickoff of the season. Under this option, football games would start Sept. 18 and other sports would start Sept. 14.
3. A hybrid plan, which would push the start date for fall sports to no later than Oct. 5 but could be a later date pending approval by a school’s district committee.
The three-option plan was approved by the board of directors by a 29-3 vote. Lombardi said each school district would decide which plan to follow.
Lombardi said under current guidelines, all games would be played without spectators.
The PIAA also has plans in place for an abbreviated state-championship competition in all fall sports that will be announced at the next board of directors meeting, set for Aug. 26.
Lombardi said the PIAA has been in regular contact with Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and the state department of health. Levine on Tuesday said at a news conference that the same data used to determine how schools reopen should be used to determine if school sports are played in the fall.
“There are recreational games being played all over the state — we believe our students deserve the same opportunity,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi said any teams that have a player or coach test positive for coronavirus will cease competition for two weeks. Any school that wishes to opt out of a game because of coronavirus concerns may do so, provided its principal provides notice in writing to the opposing school and the district committee.
The situation is especially unclear with regard to the Philadelphia Public League. Philadelphia schools superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Tuesday that students would not return to classrooms until November at the earliest.
Lombardi said District 12, which encompasses the city of Philadelphia, has been “put on ice,” awaiting further guidance.
Philadelphia school district athletic director James Lynch said Wednesday that the issue of fall sports for Public League athletes has not been resolved and additional guidance could come during Thursday’s school board meeting.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which oversees the Philadelphia Catholic League, said Tuesday that high school students would begin the school year with a hybrid virtual and in-person approach.
“People are saying, ‘Hey, you have this what-if, you have this what-if, and all these plans,‘” Lombardi said. “The biggest what-if is this: ‘What if we don’t try?’