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Scholastic athletes find out fate today

PIAA must determine whether to follow Wolf recommendation to postpone all fall sports

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sent shockwaves across the entire scholastic sports landscape Thursday afternoon when he announced at the end of a press briefing that he, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Education, was strongly recommending Pre-K-12 school and recreational youth sports be postponed until at least Jan. 1, 2021.

“Governor Zeus has thrown down another thunderbolt at the people of Pennsylvania,” Pa. State Representative of the 79th District Lou Schmitt said. “I think that this is indicative of the way the governor has conducted himself throughout the entire pandemic and that is to unilaterally make these pronouncements that other people have to deal with. I think this makes it very difficult for not just the PIAA, but also school administrators and school athletic directors. It throws the entire fall sports schedule into turmoil.

“Does this now open up the PIAA and school districts to liability if they engage in sports in defiance of the governor’s strong recommendation? What happens if there’s an outbreak on a football team or you trace an outbreak to a game? Does that now open up the schools or the PIAA to liability? It’s just another example of the governor running off unilaterally without seemingly consulting any stakeholders before making these announcements that have dire consequences for the people who have to live with them.”

Following the press briefing, the PIAA held an emergency meeting, but a final decision was put off until today when they will meet again at 1:30 p.m.

“Today, Governor Wolf issued a statement of strongly recommending no interscholastic and recreational sports until January 1st,” the statement read. “We are tremendously disappointed in this decision. Our member schools have worked diligently to develop health and safety plans to allow students the safe return to interscholastic athletics.”

The state later released highlights of the recommendation to pause youth sports which said the statement applied to team and individual, school and non-school recreational youth sports and it includes competitions, intramural play and scrimmages. The statement does not apply to collegiate and professional sports such as Penn State football and Pittsburgh Pirates baseball, and gathering limits remain 25 or less indoors and 250 or less outdoors.

District 6 Chairman Bill Marshall was part of the PIAA’s meeting on Thursday.

“Everybody was just blindsided,” Marshall said. “There was tremendous frustration, because there was an understanding that the governor’s office was going to work with the PIAA and the executive staff down there to work on language of guidelines for districts as we move forward. It’s just another one of these blanket statements that it’s just a recommendation. I can’t imagine what rec leagues in Altoona are thinking right now with that recommendation. For him to say recreation leagues should close until Jan. 1, that just flies in the face of everything that has been put out prior to today.”

Senator Judy Ward, who represents the state’s 30th district, also expressed concern with what she called a blanket statement.

“I share their frustration,” Ward said. “This causes much more confusion. It shouldn’t be a blanket statement. There are areas in the commonwealth that have much higher case counts than others. I think those school districts need to deal with those issues on a local level. I represent Fulton County, and they have had only 24 documented cases. He says it’s a recommendation, but it causes a lot of confusion for folks. I believe each school district should set their own policies about returning to school and sports. We’re playing Little League now. I feel the frustration of all the parents and kids out there.”

Jim Gregory, the Pa. state representative from the 80th district, said he had been contacted several times Thursday afternoon following the press briefing.

“My first gut reaction was, ‘oh my gosh, when does he stop planting land mines that cause people around the commonwealth to explode with emotion whether they are for or against this?'” Gregory said. “The PIAA’s reaction clearly indicates that he did not give them any opportunity to provide input.

“Already today, since this announcement, I have heard from no less than 15 separate parents and booster groups concerned about this. As a parent of two kids who played hockey, yes this is troubling, and yes it has a feel of devastation and desperation.”

Earlier Thursday, the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference met and decided to postpone all contests with the exception of golf and girls tennis until after Labor Day. The LHAC planned to have the first football scrimmages on Sept. 4 and play its first football games on Sept. 11, two weeks after the original start date of the regular season.

“We just felt a delay to allow us to get all our kids in school and see what the atmosphere was like and just really get all of our kids together before we started mingling with kids from other school districts was important,” Marshall said. “Everybody, the Laurel Highlands, ICC, WestPAC, Heritage, was working hard to come up with plans that we thought best met the needs of our individual districts. We have done hundreds of hours of work, and in one off-the-cuff statement today, the governor said he doesn’t think we should play until Jan. 1, and it puts everything in a tailspin.”

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic high school football coach Justin Wheeler has a strong group of returning players from the Marauders’ PIAA runner-up team last year, and he said the last few months have been hard on his players.

“It has been really difficult mentally, and that’s one of the things you worry about with the kids,” Wheeler said. “We’re adults, and we understand. I’m coaching. I have another season. That’s the thing that hits hard for me is the emotional rollercoaster we’re putting 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-year-old young men and women through. Today was about as big of an emotional rollercoaster as we’ve had. It’s been tough sledding. We have been practicing for the last eight weeks and following our safety plan and competing in workouts. Our guys emotionally have been preparing as if things are going forward, and then with the governor’s announcement today, it was a complete reversal of emotions.”

Marshall said he’s been impressed with the way schools in District 6 have handled themselves.

“As the District 6 chairman, I am so proud of all of our schools and the hard work they have done to develop plans specific to their schools and student athletes,” Marshall said. “It’s just disappointing that we do all that hard work and there’s no heads up that something has changed from the governor’s office. I think we’re all disappointed, because we put in all that hard work.”

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