School may be out for summer, but administrators have plenty of homework to do after the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) gave the green light for high school sports. Scholastic athletics had been shutdown since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is a lot of work to do. Things to work out yet,” said Upper St. Clair athletic director Kevin Deitrick. “I am happy for the kids though.”
On July 29, the PIAA voted 29-3 to approve return-to-play guidelines that will provide schools, coaches and officials with direction on how to have competitive sports again.
The PIAA drew on the expertise of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) and PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) when it compiled its “Return to Competition” report.
The 26-page document offers general considerations for all sports from protocols for practices and games to rules that should be followed by officials, coaches, parents and players. In addition, the report includes recommendations for specific falls sports, including cross country, golf, field hockey, football, soccer and volleyball.
“It’s going to take a couple of weeks to digest everything to see if it fits with our protocol,” Peters Township athletic director Brian Geyer said. “We are going to meet as a district next week to see how we do things as safely as possible.”
Geyer said his district has already been following all of what the PIAA recommended during its summer workouts, which have been allowed since late-June. He also said the WPIAL provided additional guidance to its member schools.
“There’s a lot of work to do as we interpret what we are able to do with our kids in the fall season,” Geyer said.
Chartiers Valley football coach Dan Knause said his players have been “adjusting on the run” all summer long during workouts that have had positive results.
“We all need to remain flexible and adjust because ultimately it’s all about the players and providing them the best opportunity to compete and play sports,” Knause said. “We all want what is best for the players. We are hopeful they can get back to doing what they love to do.”
The PIAA has ruled heat acclimatization practices for football teams can begin Aug. 10. The first official practice for football and most other fall sports is set for Aug. 17. The first week of regular season high school football games is scheduled for Aug. 28.
Contests are scheduled to begin 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.
Upper St. Clair football coach Mike Junko is thrilled with the PIAA’s recommendations
“I think (the PIAA) understands the important role that sports play in our kid’s lives,” he said. “Part of my job as head coach has been to make sure our players understand the responsibility that goes along with being allowed to play football.
“This means our players need to continue to wear masks, social distance, and protect the most vulnerable in society by taking precautions to avoid close contact with those individuals,” he added. “We are excited to play, but we have to hold up our end of the bargain and that means being safe on and off the field.”
Mt. Lebanon, like USC and Peters, has a thorough plan in place to keep athletes safe. During summer workouts, the schools have taken extra precautions so they can keep competing.
Lebo cross country coach Oscar Shutt praised athletic director, John Grogan, and the district’s leadership for putting together a detailed plan that uses the recommended guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and other agencies.
Each day cross country runners have their temperature checked as they arrive for practice and are asked a series of questions before they are permitted to practice. Athletes also physically distance themselves as they wait the start of drills and wear masks any time they are not running. They hold team meetings and post information on Google classroom.
“We are so excited the PIAA decided to leave the door open for fall sports,” said Schutt. “There is without a doubt a lot of uncertainty about what things will look like next month and into the fall, but I am hopeful that we will be able to have all or part of a cross country season.”
Because of the 250-person limit on outdoor gatherings, The Marty Uher Invitational on Labor Day at California University of Pennsylvania has been postponed.
Nevertheless the Blue Devils are proceeding with their objectives, knowing they may encounter a few hiccups along the way.
“Our approach each day is to get better as we train and prepare for races this fall. Our seniors have big team and individual goals and we are working each day to be in a position to attain them,” Shutt said.
“I remind the team to control what we can control like proper social distancing and executing our daily training. Many of the external concerns are out of our hands so we don’t gain anything by worrying about them.”
Geyer said he is also taking precautions toward another angle of his athletes’ health.
“There is a social and emotional aspect that is important,” he said. “Sports may be an extracurricular activity, but to us they are an extension of the classroom. Academics is first, but students can learn so much from participation in sports. The top priority, though, is keeping the kids, students, staff and community as safe as possible.”
Because COVID-19 is “such a constant unknown” Knause said it may be difficult for an entire season to be played without complications.
“If this virus has taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected,” said Junko. “I am hopeful things are able to stay on schedule.
“I hope that people that have concerns about us playing understand just how serious we are about keeping the kids safe,” he added. “Our parents and administrators have placed a tremendous amount of trust in our staff to make sure that we take every precaution and follow every protocol.”
For a copy of the “Return to Competition” recommendations, visit www.piaa.org.