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No fans, but PIAA announces that Fall sports will go on as planned

The PIAA is moving forward with plans to begin the fall sports season on time, it said during Wednesday’s Board of Directors meeting. But the state’s governing body for high school sports also outlined a number of scenarios for schools to push back its start date, should it so choose.

So while the PIAA decided to move forward with fall sports, it put the power of when the season will start in the hands of the local school districts. A one-size-fits-all declaration from the PIAA was never going to work as different parts of the state continue to be impacted in different ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi.

“A lot of people are under a lot of pressure to start seasons later, maybe after Labor Day,” Lombardi said following the meeting. “So they wanted the flexibility to do so. It may impact what we do in the postseason and we’ll make those decisions when we see who is starting seasons when.”

The Board of Directors approved, by a vote of 29-3, the meeting minutes from the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) in which SMAC recommended fall sports begin on time. Those voting against the measure were Pennsylvania Principals Association Representative Jonathan Bauer, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association Representatives Nathan Mains and Dr. Richard Frerichs because the PIAA’s Return to Play guidelines go against their return to school guidelines.

Schools can begin football heat acclimatization on Aug. 10 with practices for all other sports beginning Aug. 17. The PIAA also laid out guidelines for schools which wish to wait to begin seasons after Labor Day, or wish to have a start date other than that. As long as school districts allow the three weeks of preseason time, any start date will be accepted.

“Educational-based athletics are vital to the growth and health and development of student-athletes and their success in school,” Lombardi said. “The biggest ‘what if’ we have in all of this is what if we don’t try? If we don’t try to get something out of the season for students, I think we’re failing them. We need to do our darndest to help them become successful.”

Currently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education says no spectators will be allowed in sporting events for K-12 schools. Lombardi expects that to be the case as the season starts. They will continue follow the guidelines of the Department of Education and Department of Health regarding the start of the fall sports season and spectators being allowed at events.

The PIAA will allow for any school which chooses to go the route of online learning only to participate in athletics should the individual school district so choose. Lombardi said online attendance counts as school attendance, so they’re perfectly content with schools doing remote learning still participating in athletics.

The PIAA released its Return to Competition guidelines Wednesday, which lays out general parameters schools should follow for all sports and parameters for officials. It also lays out sport-specific guidelines for each of the eight PIAA-sponsored fall sports.

“We didn’t go down every little rabbit hole, but we did give guidelines and guidance of high-consideration items that need to be done on a daily basis whether schools are hosting events or traveling to events,” Lombardi said. “And we also built in considerations for spectators if at some point we have the ability to have them.”

Lombardi said the PIAA is pushing forward with fall sports despite the cancellation of seasons throughout Pennsylvania on the collegiate level because local communities are more self-contained than colleges. While colleges bring in students from numerous states and often have to cross state lines for competition, high schools and middle schools are often playing within a relatively close distance of their school.

“They’re totally different situations,” Lombardi said. “The other part is high school athletes are usually multi-sport athletes. College athletes are single-sport athletes, so you can lump multiple seasons into one because there’s almost no crossover of athletes. That’s just not true with high school athletes.”

As schools announce when they will begin their fall seasons, the PIAA will finalize its postseason options. It hopes to have all fall championships concluded by Thanksgiving to avoid having to play through the start of the flu season. To do that, the PIAA may adjust the state tournament brackets and the number of qualifiers.

While football is the only sport which conducts its state tournament with only district champions, other sports may have to follow such a plan in order to complete their seasons in time. The PIAA has also laid out a plan in which it would reduce the number of qualifiers to the state cross country meet and the state golf tournament.

Football could see its district tournaments reduced in order to finish the postseason earlier, but those decisions will be made at a later date.

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