PIAA: No fans in stands for now

Fall sports given OK to begin on time, but without spectators

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association approved return to competition guidelines Wednesday afternoon at its board meeting, opening the way for fall sports — including football — to begin on time.

However, as it stands right now, the games, which start Aug. 28, will be played with no spectators, including no family members.

PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi said it was the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s guideline that banned spectators and that the PIAA accepted that guideline.

“The topic of spectators has been discussed quite often with the board, but it seems to be out of our hands right now,” Lombardi said.

Hollidaysburg football coach and athletic director Homer DeLattre is disappointed that parents may miss out on seeing their kids play in person this season.

“Our biggest supporters are our parents, and the community has been very supportive of us over the years,” DeLattre said. “I’m still holding out hope that it changes a little bit. My hope is by the time we get to Aug. 28, that there’s some guidance changes, but that’s only going to happen if people do their part to help slow the spread by social distancing, practicing good hygiene and stuff like that. If people can do that in this area and other areas, maybe that guideline will change.”

The PIAA left the door open to the possibility of changing its policy, and it has another board meeting on Aug. 26 just two days before the start of the season, but Lombardi said he’s “anticipating in most scenarios, there will be no spectators.”

Some regional schools such as Johnstown and Richland have already proactively planned for fans being barred from gymnasiums and their football stadiums and have taken advantage of an offer from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The NFHS is offering two free Pixellot camera systems for free other than an up-to-$2,500 installation fee that will allow schools to stream their games.

“We’ll be using the NFHS network to stream the games for our fans and family members,” Johnstown football coach Bruce Jordan said. “We’re also trying to find other methods for our family members to watch the games. We already have WCRO (1230 AM), our radio station, so they’ll be able to listen to it. We’re doing the best we can so that the experience for the fans and students is still the genuine high school football experience.”

Hollidaysburg’s games will also be on the radio.

“We have streamed games for years on a Periscope site, and this year, our games are going to be on the radio, which is a bonus for us,” DeLattre said. “We’re working with HANK-FM 96.1, and it will be the first time our games have been on the radio.”

If the no-spectators mandate stays in place, Central assistant football Coach A.J. Hoenstine will be one of the few parents that does get to see his son, a sophomore with the Scarlet Dragons, play football live.

“I’m hoping maybe they take a second look at that,” Hoenstine said. “I think you could easily socially distance at least two family members per team member in a football stadium, and if not, let them have one. I can’t imagine not being allowed to watch your child play, especially football. Hopefully by the end of August that changes, because that’s going to be tough on a lot of parents.”

As for the return of sports in general, at this point the state and the PIAA are leaving the decision in each school district’s hands.

“The discussions with the Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Education are ongoing,” said Catharine Conner, who reported an update on legislative matters to the PIAA. “Dr. (Rachel) Levine has said they are looking at COVID-19 data to guide their decisions, not only with the reopening of schools but also with sports. At this time, they continue to allow local districts to make decisions on fall sports.”

The return to competition guidelines were approved by a 29-3 vote.

Guidelines for football include extension of team boxes on sidelines to allow for more social distancing, consistent cleaning and sanitizing of the football and an encouragement to wear some type of facial covering whether it be cloth masks, plastic shields or face shields developed by helmet manufactures like Schutt and Oakley.

Locker rooms for players and officials should be large enough to socially distance and should be properly cleaned and sanitized prior to arrival.

Three board members, Jonathan Bauer, Nathan Mains and Dr. Richard Frerichs voted against the plan.

“There’s differences between the guidelines for the state’s return to the classroom and the guidelines for the state’s return to competition,” said Bauer, who is the Pennsylvania Principals Association representative on the board. “It’s our thoughts that the principals of the state of Pennsylvania are responsible for the safety of students during academic and athletic programs, and with that in mind and the differences in the guidelines, we cannot vote for this document.”

The PIAA also will give schools three different starting options depending on the current situation in their part of the state. The options include starting on time or as late as Oct. 5, but in each scenario, a team must practice three weeks before beginning competition.

“The start of the first practice may be a little restrictive for some parts of the state that are experiencing going-back-to-school challenges,” Lombardi said. “If they would like some more flexibility if they are in a hotbed area of an outbreak, the committee suggested we give them a couple different options.”

The PIAA is hoping to have the state playoffs finished by Thanksgiving by shrinking the number of qualifiers in the district playoffs.

Lombardi said the PIAA has worked with the governor’s office throughout the process to develop the plan announced Wednesday but cautioned that the state could still shut down fall sports if the data supports that decision.

“We’re going to do what we’ve done since the start and work cooperatively with the Department of Education, the Department of Health and the governor’s office,” Lombardi said. “If they make the determination to direct schools not to play, we will adhere to that.”


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