MECHANICSBURG — Three months ago, it was unclear whether or not high school athletics would happen during the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision ultimately came one week before the original starting date for fall sports competitions and although there have been hiccups along the way for schools throughout the state, the upcoming completion of fall sports season is an optimistic sign going forward.
“We’re 10 days away from completing a fall season. We’re really proud of that,” PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert A. Lombardi said during a board of directors meeting Wednesday afternoon. “It shows that this can be done if it is taken seriously, which it was.”
Lombardi also noted that to the PIAA’s knowledge, there was no spread of the virus from one team to another throughout the course of the entire fall sports season, which concludes next weekend with the state championships for football.
No final decision or vote was made by the PIAA on the start date for winter sports seasons during Wednesday’s meeting, but Lombardi said the current plan is to aim for the current start date for winter sports with an abundance of caution as each school district continues to evaluate each individual situation.
The current start date for mandatory practices is Friday, Nov. 20, and the first date for regular season competitions is Friday, Dec. 11. A final decision on winter sports is expected to be made at the next PIAA board of directors meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
Recent spikes in cases for the coronavirus in the state has brought at least one change to sports for now, which is the latest mask guidance presented by Dr. Rachel Levine on Tuesday.
“Everyone is keeping an eye on the changes in the last couple of weeks,” Lombardi said.
The latest update to wearing masks statewide, in short, requires everyone to wear a face covering indoor and outdoor when with someone outside a member of their household — regardless of the opportunity to social distance.
Lombardi said Wednesday that he has reached out to the governor’s office for clarification and guidance on the latest mask update and how it should be interpreted in a sports setting, but he has not yet received a response.
The exemption list for being unable to wear a mask still remains in effect and one of those reasons for being prohibited to wear a mask is a safety concern — a case which can be made for athletes enduring physical activity. Prior to the mandate, most safety plans made by school districts required athletes to wear a mask when they are not in a drill or workout and unable to social distance.
As of Wednesday evening, the decision for high school athletes to wear a mask during a competition or practice is to be made by a school district and its school solicitor, according to Lombardi.
Two changes did occur for winter sports during the board of directors meeting.
For indoor track, relays have been eliminated from competitions and the 200-meter dash will be implemented.
In wrestling, it was approved that there will be no more than eight contestants for team dual events or tournaments. No determination has been made on a postseason for wrestling.
The PIAA said it will allow virtual meets for indoor track, swimming and diving, competitive cheerleading, bowling and rifle. Each sport will be adhering to the guidance put forth by the National Federation of High School Sports on this subject.
PIAA Assistant Executive Director Melissa Mertz briefly explained that a virtual meet would be held by each team conducting the non-contact sport in their respective facilities with registered officials or scorekeepers present and at the conclusion of both team’s performance, scores and times will be recorded to determine winners.
In-person meets for sports are still permitted by the PIAA.
“Different parts of the state might choose to do things differently,” Mertz said.
Temporary school closures
One subject that is still up for discussion is the PIAA’s official guidance for a school’s return-to-play policy following a temporary school closure.
A motion was defeated during Wednesday’s meeting that would have amended the current bylaw in place for a district following a temporary shutdown that prohibited practice from taking place. Several concerns were expressed by district representatives — including the event of a school closure due to hazardous winter weather — which led to the motion being defeated.
Lombardi said that the interest in having an official return-to-play policy following a temporary school shutdown is for the health and safety of athletes so that a student is not prone to injury following a layoff.
The PIAA staff will present new language to amend the bylaw at the next board of directors meeting.
Transfer rules clarification
No changes were made the PIAA’s transfer rule during Wednesday’s meeting, however, three clarifications were made to simplify the rule, which came from appeals made over the last year.
The three clarifications are: 1) The 21-day sit out period for a transfer student following a change of schools is not able to be waived; 2) An athlete is unable to participate in the postseason even if the decision to change schools was not athletically motivated; 3) An athlete is unable to participate in the postseason even if the decision to change schools was not made by the student or the circumstance causing the transfer of schools was not in the student’s control.
Football championships schedule update
There have been no changes to the state championships for football as of Wednesday evening and the schedule for next weekend remains as follows: Friday, Nov. 27 — Class 1A at 11 a.m.; Class 3A at 3:30 p.m.; Class 5A at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 28 — Class 2A at 11 a.m.; Class 4A at 3:30 p.m.; Class 6A at 8 p.m.
Lombardi noted that changes to this format can still take place if teams make a request for a time change due particular circumstance. For example, if Team A is slated for kickoff at 11 a.m. but a 4-hour bus ride to HersheyPark Stadium is required, time changes may be made prior to next weekend.
Lombardi also noted that the PIAA is contracted to play its championship games at Hershey and a neutral site to reduce travel is not likely.