By Michael Rubinkam
High school athletes across Pennsylvania will be taking the field this fall, after all.
Ending weeks of uncertainty, the governing body for Pennsylvania interscholastic sports voted Friday to move forward with the fall season, rejecting the governor’s recommendation that all youth sports be postponed until 2021 to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The board of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association had delayed the start of fall sports after Gov. Tom Wolf on Aug. 6 urged that scholastic and recreational youth sports be put off until January, citing the pandemic.
The PIAA had said it was blindsided and “tremendously disappointed” by Wolf’s recommendation — which was not binding — and insisted that fall sports could be held safely. For his part, Wolf has pointed out that major collegiate leagues have independently canceled fall sports.
The board voted 25-5 on Friday to allow high school football, soccer, tennis, field hockey and other fall sports to go on as planned, starting Monday. Among those voting no: board members representing professional associations of school boards, superintendents and principals.
There was no discussion ahead of the vote. The PIAA separately approved a measure that would potentially allow schools that opt out of a fall season to hold fall sports in the spring. The Wolf administration expressed “broad concern” with restarting school sports but said the decision was the PIAA’s to make, in consultation with school districts.
“The governor’s recommendation is grounded in public health evidence,” said the governor’s spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger. “Every gathering outside the classroom jeopardizes a school’s ability to resume in-person instruction because it increases the risk of super-spreading events.”
Some school districts and leagues have already thrown in the towel on a fall season, including those in Philadelphia, Reading and Harrisburg, saying the risk of spreading the virus is too great. But Robert Lombardi, the PIAA’s executive director, said a “large majority” of schools plan to play now that the PIAA has given its blessing.
Several Pennsylvania high schools have already reported virus cases among athletes, prompting temporary shutdowns of sports programs. One league, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, which has over 200 member schools in 10 counties, struck a separate agreement with the Allegheny County Health Department that will allow fall sports in the Pittsburgh area to go on — despite the county’s 50-person limit on outdoor gatherings.
The agreement, announced Friday, will allow the WPIAL to get around the limit by counting each sideline as its own, separate gathering, called a “pod,” with the players on the field constituting a third pod. Each pod, the agreement says, will be limited to 50 people or less. Football teams, in particular, would’ve had trouble playing in Allegheny County if the 50-person gathering limit had been strictly construed.
The PIAA, citing a statewide outdoor gathering limit of 250, has prohibited spectators at fall sporting events.
“We continue to advocate to have some spectators there, especially at least Mom and Dad,” Lombardi told reporters after the board meeting, which was conducted virtually.
Most of the seats on the 32-member PIAA board are filled with representatives from member schools, with school boards, school administrators, athletic directors and coaches, among others, also represented.
The state Department of Education also has a seat. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said its PIAA representative, Nathan Mains, who voted no, was concerned that school districts wouldn’t have enough time to firm up their safety protocols before mandatory practices start Monday.
“There continues to be great debate among experts on how best to restart sports practices and competitions. There also continues to be a lack of agreement around what the state-issued orders are and how they impact education, and more specifically, sports,” said Annette Stevenson, spokesperson for the school boards group.