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State College School Board Approves Fall Sports Competition Plans

by on September 18, 2020 12:01 AM

State College Area School Board on Thursday night approved plans that will allow for fall sports teams to participate in competitions this fall. But just how that will play out for each team remains to be seen.

When the district has in-person learning in session, all teams can participate in shortened competition schedules, mostly with fellow Mid-Penn Conference schools.

But when district schools are in fully remote learning, as they currently are, only non-contact sports — cross country, golf and tennis — can continue participating in competitions. Contact sports — field hockey, football, soccer and volleyball — will not have interscholastic competitions during district-wide remote learning. They will be permitted to continue practicing and take part in intrasquad scrimmages "to prepare athletes for a safe return to competitive play," according to a memo from district administrators to the board.

The non-contact sports plan passed unanimously. The contact sports plan passed 7-2, with Lori Bedell and Gretchen Brandt voting no.

To participate in competition, football players would be required to enroll in fully remote courses from after the first game until 14 days after the last game. Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said this is because football is the only fall sport identified as being highest risk for COVID-19 by the National Federation of State High School Associations. He added that the requirement could change if the district's health and safety team recommends doing so.

SCASD has been in fully remote mode for the last two weeks amid the Centre Region's surge in COVID-19 cases, and a decision on whether students can return for in-school learning next week will be announced on Friday. With the Mid-Penn Conference delaying the start of the fall season, Sept. 25 is the first date most league teams can begin competition, with the exception of tennis and golf.

The State High golf teams were given special permission to compete once, on Wednesday, because there is no difference in risk between practice and competition, O'Donnell said, as well as because they had already missed seven competitions and would not be eligible for postseason play otherwise.

Non-contact sports are allowed to continue even in remote status because "these sports have no variance of risk whether practicing or competing. Additionally, the season schedules for these sports are on the verge of completion," administrators wrote in their memo.

"As I think of this consideration, in our school decisions we’re constantly trying to thread the needle, trying to weigh providing opportunities for students with protecting the community’s health and safety," O'Donnell said. "While there’s obviously risk involved with athletics, we have many mitigation strategies in place. I believe that the plan seeks to provide a chance for our student athletes to engage in the sports they love, albeit in a more restrictive manner."

The Fall Athletics Health and Safety Plan —  developed with input from physicians, an epidemiologist and nurses — mostly follows the same COVID-19 mitigation protocols that have been included in the summer workout plan and the interim plan that allowed practices to begin earlier this month, such as mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, physical distancing, health screenings and cleaning of equipment and facilities.

It was updated to include temperature checks for all coaches and athletes before practices and competitions. Additionally, it plans for mask-wearing, hand sanitizer use, distancing and, when possible, open windows on buses traveling to competitions. The district also  will seek the assistance of parents to provide transportation in an effort to reduce the number of people on buses.

Visiting teams will be required to be screened before arriving at competitions. Athletic Director Chris Weakland said the Mid-Penn Conference has a uniform COVID-19 screening procedure. 

As far as spectators, the plan will follow state and local guidelines. Right now, Department of Health and Department of Education guidance limits attendance at sporting events to 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors, numbers that include athletes, coaches, officials and other personnel. Gov. Tom Wolf said he would veto a measure passed by the General Assembly would leave the decision up to school districts, but House and Senate Republican leadership believe they will have enough votes to override a veto.

O'Donnell said if spectators are permitted priority would be given to athletes' parents and guardians.

On average, State College's fall teams will play only about 50% of their regular schedule. Assistant Athletic Director Loren Crispell said that at a meeting of Mid-Penn athletic directors last week, there was no concern from other schools about competing against State College, which is currently the fastest rising COVID-19 hotspot in the state, mostly due to Penn State student testing.

"To an individual ,there was no concern shared," Crispell said. "Some of the neighboring Mid-Penn athletic directors have said, 'If it makes it easier, we can come to you.' It’s almost unanimous support to play these games."

During a lengthy public comment period, numerous student-athletes, coaches and parents spoke, with most — but not all — in favor of a return to play.

Several specifically advocated that the plan should allow for all sports, contact and non-contact, to be able to continue with competitions even if the district is in fully remote mode, arguing that since the athletes would not be in school buildings during that period there would be no additional risk to the district community.

Board member Amy Bader said, however, that stipulation follows the district's general COVID-19 health and safety policy regarding heightened community transmission.

"If we’re concerned enough that school needs to be closed it indicates that there is community spread happening in our community and that means any kind of interactions are high risk," she said. "That for me is a fundamental reason why I’m willing to approve this plan, because it acknowledges the fact that when we have high levels of community spread, that we prioritize keeping our community safe. And that means that we can’t gather, essentially."

Nearly every coach and athlete who spoke discussed the physical, mental and emotional importance of continuing with fall sports and stressed their adherence to the health and safety measures that have already been in place. There have been no known COVID-19 cases among athletes who participated in voluntary summer workouts or fall practices. Throughout all district schools, four students and one employee have tested positive.

"I understand the concern that COVID-19 presents, but if us as players had any of that worry we would not be up here right now fighting this hard for our season, especially when teams down the road are playing and suiting up their pads," senior football player Stevie Guthoff said. "That should be us. We want to be playing a competitive season just like they are right now. With the precautions we have taken as a team and the guidelines we have followed, we are more than confident not only with the standards, but with the coaches and ultimately with ourselves.

"We know how if we do not take the proper precautions we will lose the season for ourselves. However, we have. We have all followed these standards to the fullest. I urge you to come to observe us at these practices because as players we do not take this task lightly."

He added that for some athletes, this season is their last chance to earn attention from colleges and potential scholarships. 

"Without getting to play, how do you expect these kids to get their names out there this season? The answer is that they will go elsewhere to play, such as recruiting camps, 7-on-7 camps and other activities," he said. "And that elsewhere does not follow the guidelines we follow. There’s nowhere as safe as the standards we’ve created here at State High. Not to add we’d have to pay for these chances to get the exposure we could have gotten here for free, for a safer experience. For some it might be easy to give money to these recruiters to get their name out there, but for others that is not financially an option."

With the county's four other high schools and every other District 6 team already playing and all but two Mid-Penn teams moving forward with the season, football coach Matt Lintal, who is also a high school counselor, said not playing would be devastating to athletes and coaches who have strictly followed all of the health and safety measures put forth by the district.

"While not playing while everyone is not playing is extremely hard, not playing the sport that you love when every other school in the county and our district is playing is torturous," he said. "This would have a significant impact on our students on so many levels and in every sport. Our kids would be at a distinct disadvantage for postsecondary opportunities. However my biggest concern as a school counselor would be the mental health of our kids should the cancelation of sports become a reality."

Several athletes noted that the time with their teams so far this fall has been a motivation during a difficult time, particularly when school has been remote.

"Our love for the sport has driven our actions throughout optional summer workouts as well as the practices we’ve been fortunate enough to have thus far in the season," said senior girls volleyball player Kacy Sekunda. "It has been very difficult to understand how every other in our district is approved and playing while we are not. COVID-19 is present in our community and will continue to be. I hope you can see that with the precautions the health and safety plan has outlined, athletes can be safe and better together on our courts, fields and courses."

Not every athlete who spoke, however, was in favor of moving forward with competitions. 

Ellie Morar, a senior captain on the girls tennis team, said while they have been comfortable in practices, she and her teammates are concerned about traveling and having visiting teams come to State College.

"We think that opening our isolated community — and we have a small tennis team — to more germ pools would put us at a really high risk, and there is assurance that it would be safe but there’s also so many variables that we can’t account for," she said. "For lots of us right now, we’re just trying to value long-term health and happiness along with the health of our community, which could be risked by traveling. A lot of us aren’t entirely sure if the risks are worth having high school sports."

O'Donnell said if a team decides it wants to continue practices but not compete, it will be allowed to do so.

"If a team doesn’t want to compete and wants to continue with the interim plan… that’s not a problem," he said

Some district parents who spoke questioned why the board was allowing athletic teams to compete when students are not able to be in classrooms.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for school board members to tell the community we have to be all-in and then grant exceptions," said Stephen Williamson, a parent of two district children who said he was track and field team captain in college and appreciates the value of sports. "You cannot just care about the mental, emotional and physical health of one group. It must be all of them and it must be comprehensive... Any further decision on athletics should be tabled until the students are back in school for at least one week to prove the district’s commitment to education."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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