The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is pushing on with its plan to begin falls sports as scheduled next month, but it didn’t close the door on switching to a delayed start.
The PIAA board voted 29-3 Wednesday to approve return-to-play guidelines that will provide schools, coaches and officials with direction on how to have competitive sports again during the coronavirus pandemic.
Though the PIAA is continuing with its plan for falls sports to begin as scheduled, the organization did allow some wiggle room for its districts to use delayed starts and varied scheduling models for seasons.
“In addressing the COVID-19 crisis and how it has affected the 67 counties differently, the PIAA understands the flexibility needed by school districts to make localized measured decisions, rather than a ‘one- size fits all’ approach in addressing interscholastic athletics,” the PIAA said in a release. “To aid our school districts who have varied approaches to their return to school plans, the PIAA has offered flexibility to schools, leagues and/or conferences to begin contests after the first contest date.”
For football, heat acclimatization practices are scheduled to begin Aug. 10 and full-scale practices Aug. 17. Scrimmages can be held starting Aug. 22 with the first games permitted Aug. 28.
Contests can start Aug. 20 in golf, Aug. 24 in girls tennis and Sept. 4 in cross country, girls volleyball, field hockey and soccer.
Schools, leagues and conferences can push back the start of practices and competitions and use a “hybrid start” with competitions starting no later than Oct. 5. One alternate start date for football is Sept. 18.
Currently, spectators are not allowed at any high school athletic events. The PIAA said it will adjust if the Pennsylvania Department of Education changes the policy.
“I feel badly for the senior parents,” McGuffey athletic director and head football coach Ed Dalton said.
If the ban on spectators is lifted, schools will still have to follow the state’s gathering restrictions, which are currently at 25 for indoor events and 250 outdoors.
“I get it that you have to limit crowd sizes, but schools have stadiums of a certain size because it fits them. Our stadium seats 2,200 and it fits us,” Dalton said. “If we limit the crowd to 500 or 25%, then we can easily social distance with that and still be able to get in the senior parents and maybe even the band. Plus, we have room for about 500 people in standing room. It just seems like 25 and 250 are random numbers.”
Dalton said that the guidelines for returning to play also are well-intended but leave many questions unanswered.
“For example, what happens if we get a player hurt at an away game, and God forbid, it’s a bad injury? The player would have to go to the hospital and his parents aren’t even at the game,” Dalton said.
Jim Faiella, head girls cross country coach at Trinity, brought up a point that wasn’t covered by the guidelines. If outdoor gatherings are limited to 250 people, how do you hold a large invitational meet?
“Invitationals allow seven runners per team, and some allow 10. The guidelines say the current limit is 250 people at an outdoor gathering, figure out how to keep it under 250 if you’re hosting a meet,” Faiella said. “They are giving us guidelines for social distancing and telling the WPIAL and school districts to work it out. It will be up to you to figure out how to keep it under 250.”
Among the significant changes approved in the return-to-play guidelines are volleyball teams will no longer change ends of the court and benches after each game. They will remain on the same end of the court and bench for the entire match. In football, face shields are recommended and the players’ bench area will extend 80 yards, from the 10-yard line to the 10-yard line at the opposite end of the field.
The PIAA said the decision to play fall sports is currently up to each school district, along with the Department of Health and the Department of Education. The PIAA said further guidance could be coming from the “governor’s office.”
Earlier this week, the PIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee voted unanimously that falls sports should start as scheduled, as long as essential safety guidelines and protocols are followed. The committee recommended last week that if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19, then his/her entire team must self-quarantine for 14 days. That would likely cause a football team to not play for three weeks.
The PIAA said that games that are cancelled because one team has COVID-19 concerns will not be considered forfeits. Instead, they will be “no contests.”