Clock ticking for official fall sports decision

Bob Parana - Staff Writer

In less than three weeks high school football teams will begin “official” practice with the mandated Heat Acclimatization week on Aug. 10. A week later the rest of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) fall sports teams will begin practice. For now, those are a go according to a release by the sports’ governing body sent last week.

While the PIAA is committed to getting athletes back on the fields and courts they are doing so knowing the COVID-19 situation is ever-changing. “PIAA is committed to providing a season for all sports in the upcoming school year and will be flexible if conditions would change,” ended the July 15 tweet. The opening line of the statement implies the decision to move forward could be out of its control. “PIAA is moving forward with the normal start of the fall sports season unless otherwise directed by the Commonwealth”. Right, wrong, or indifferent the decision may ultimately be decided by the state.

School districts in the state’s “yellow phase” have approved the necessary steps with the required health and safety plans allowing athletes to participate in voluntary workouts. Once approved by the school boards the plans could be implemented without further PIAA or state approval. Locally the Ridgway, Johnsonburg, Kane, Elk County Catholic, and St. Marys school districts have approved the plans and several athletes are participating while following the stringent CDC and state department of health COVID guidelines. Some of these include temperature checks, masks when not directly participating in drills, social distancing, and personal water bottles.

While sports are a high priority for many including reporters, schools have also been tasked with re-opening classrooms. From the outside looking in it appears those steps will require additional financial responsibilities that may be tough for districts to absorb. While several teams help support their own needs with booster clubs there is a price to pay. In the fall Ridgway and Johnsonburg co-op in football, boys and girls golf, girls’ tennis, soccer, and cross country. Each school has its own volleyball teams plus additional junior high sports. Add that cost to returning schools to normal and the financial juggling may be more than tough.

As for the games and meets themselves the list of questions is immense. When and how often will athletes and coaches need COVID testing? What happens if a positive case is confirmed? Will fans be able to attend events? Will additional transportation be necessary? Can reporters cover events and what requirements must they fill to do so? What will be required of game officials? A page can be filled with questions that are being addressed.

The PIAA is closely working with the governor’s office as it moves towards the opening of schools. Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi acknowledged after last week’s meeting that the board will continue to explore options to allow sports to start as scheduled but additional changes may be on the horizon.

“Things change, we would cooperatively work together to come up with alternate plans including possibly shortening of seasons and qualifiers if necessary,” he told Penn Live and the Patriot-News. Lombardi also feels that districts for the most part have been doing everything necessary to allow sports to be played on time. “We would like to compliment schools in how well they’ve done their health and safety plans because even though we’ve had a few hiccups in some areas of the state, most people are doing a pretty darn good job prescreening, interviewing, observing and practicing good hygiene, good health habits and making sure people are hydrated and taking care of their health and safety or well-being as they participate in out-of-season workouts.”

Sports have been classified by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) as high, moderate, and low risk based on the amount of close, sustained activity, and other factors. Football is considered high-risk Volleyball, soccer, and tennis are considered moderate risk. Low-risk fall sports include golf and cross-country with staggered starts. Winter sports wrestling and competitive cheer are rated high risk and basketball moderate risk. Baseball and softball which are spring sports are deemed moderate-risk and the various track and field events are listed as both low and moderate risk. The NFSHSA has classified all 25 high school sports.

States across the nation have or are in the process of making decisions with a focus on football. Neighboring New York has decided to delay its fall sports seasons until at least Sept. 21. In Ohio, all sports but football, have been approved to start on time. New Jersey will not play football until at least Oct. 2, Maryland is planning to begin its fall practices starting on Aug. 14, and West Virginia is looking at football starting the first week in September. Obviously, these plans could all change based on state decisions and mandates regarding COVID. Some states are considering moving fall sports to the spring and going ahead with moderate and low-risk sports if able to follow any current or additional guidelines.

The Pennsylvania State Athletic Association (PSAC) officially postponed all sports through Dec.31. Clarion, Slippery Rock, Bloomsburg, Edinboro, Gannon, Mercyhurst, and the University of Pitt-Johnstown are among the 18 colleges affected. The University of Pitt-Bradford did the same on Monday. The Ivy League and other Division I conferences have canceled fall seasons and the Big 10 has limited football games to the conference only. Those decisions have no bearing on the PIAA but the organization is monitoring college and pro sports. COVID-era, Major League Baseball with no fans is starting Thursday. The NHL and NBA are currently preparing for abbreviated play-in games and playoffs but are confined to areas or central area “bubbles” to protect participants.

The PIAA Board of Directors will be meeting on July 29. The state’s competition steering committee will be meeting to discuss the fall seasons before that meeting. An announcement is expected following the July 29 meeting. In the meantime athletes, coaches, and school districts will continue working towards the ultimate goal of getting students back in school and on the playing fields.
Note - sources used include the Patriot-News, PIAA, NFSHSA, and various state high school sports associations.