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Wolf: Schools without in-person classes shouldn’t participate in contact sports

LEWISTOWN — Gov. Tom Wolf said during a press conference Monday that for schools only offering virtual learning at the beginning of this school year it would be “hard to justify” playing contact sports this fall. His stance that events should be closed to spectators drew the ire of state House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff and 62 other Republican lawmakers.

“What happens in schools should be consistent with what happens on the playing fields,” the governor said. “In other words, if the school is going completely virtual, it seems hard to justify in-person, contact sports being played in the fall. If the school’s gonna be open, feels it’s safe — the teachers, the parents, the administrators feel it’s safe — to reopen, that’s a different proposition for contact sports.”

If Wolf decides to formally enact this as policy, it would affect teams in the state’s two largest public school districts — the School District of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Public Schools — that have already declared the year will begin with fully-remote learning.

In that case, even if local schools have chosen to hold in-person classes, some contests could be lost if the opposing school was operating in a virtual-only mode.

But, for now, Wolf said he wants to allow local administrators to make decisions about what best serves their students and athletes.

“I’m trying to allow for different situations in different parts of the state because we do have some diversity in their sports decisions and in their education decisions ought to be governed by what’s going on locally,” he said.

When Wolf was asked about the potential for revisiting the policy barring spectators from events to allow parents and other family members to attend games, even in a limited capacity, Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine indicated they plan to release more guidance “in two days,” which would mean Wednesday.

“I hate to sound fuzzy here, but this is a work in progress and the situation changes every day for us and in the state on any given day from place, from one region to another,” Wolf said. “So, we’re just trying to keep up with the virus and trying to give the guidance that we can to help the parents feel and the students feel and the teachers and coaches and administrators feel that they can safely come back to education.”

Benninghoff and several dozen House Republicans wrote a letter to Wolf Monday demanding schools be allowed to decide if spectators are allowed.

“At a time when folks have had the five-months-long experience of social distancing and protecting themselves and others from a contagious virus, it makes no sense that people might be less safe sitting in the football stands or around the high school track at a soccer match, with appropriate modifications, than in the aisles of their local mega retailer,” the letter to Gov. Wolf reads. “On July 31, 2020, you reminded Pennsylvanians that you are looking to keep decisions as to school reopening local, saying, ‘School governing boards and administrators will determine if school buildings reopen and if classes resume in person, remotely, or a combination of the two.’ Should not similar allowances be made for whether spectators should be allowed at a local school’s sporting events?”

The Republican letter argued for the need to have parental support at games.

“The parents of these students have supported their children and, oftentimes, the school sports team in various ways during the student’s journey and there is a deep satisfaction from the ability to watch their loved ones compete in something they value,” the letter reads. “While we understand that you feel constrained by the governor’s orders in this regard, we wish to remind you that PIAA is an independent agency that has the ability to think outside the box to come up with a commonsense solution that can allow both sports to proceed as normal while, at a minimum, allowing parents of students to watch their loved ones in person.”

The first PIAA-sponsored sport scheduled to begin competition is golf on Aug. 20. Girls tennis may begin playing competitive matches on Aug. 24. Football may play its first games Aug. 28. The remaining fall sports teams (volleyball, boys and girls soccer, field hockey and cross country) may begin competition on Sept. 4. The Mid-Penn Conference, which includes Mifflin County and Juniata High School in football, announced on Monday evening that it has delayed the start of fall sports practices to Sept. 4.

Teams may begin heat acclimatization workouts on Aug. 10 with the first full practice permitted to take place Aug. 17.

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