Gov. Wolf: Online-only schools shouldn’t play sports this fall

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Monday, August 3, 2020 | 2:24 PM


Online classes await students at a number of schools this fall, but that wasn’t expected to keep their sports teams from competing.

Now, they’re not so sure.

Gov. Tom Wolf said schools choosing an online-only approach shouldn’t play sports in the fall, an informal announcement that left coaches, athletes and administrators worried.

“I’m not sure we’ve figured out exactly how we can do this, but what happens in schools should be consistent with what happens on the playing fields,” Wolf said Monday while answering a question at a joint press conference with state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

“In other words, if the school is going completely virtual, it seems hard to justify having in-person contact sports being played in the fall,” Wolf added. “If the school is going to be open and feels it’s safe — if teachers, administrators, parents feel it’s safe to reopen — that’s a different proposition for contact sports.”

Wolf referenced “contact sports,” but a spokesperson clarified later to the Trib that he was talking about all sports.

Many districts would be impacted including Pittsburgh Public Schools, which already announced plans to exclusively use online classes for the first quarter of the school year. Riverview, East Allegheny and Moon are among the WPIAL schools taking a similar virtual-classroom approach.

“We’re still planning on going ahead with sports,” Riverview athletic director Mario Rometo said. “We’re just waiting to see what comes out. … We’re going to do everything we can to try to give these kids that opportunity until we’re told not to.”

Wolf also addressed his ban on fans at school sports events, saying more information would be released this week. Guidance issued earlier this summer said spectators were prohibited, sparking an online petition that drew more than 44,000 signatures by Monday.

More than 60 Republican state legislators also sent Wolf a letter insisting parents should be allowed to attend games.

“In two more days, we’ll have more formal guidelines,” Wolf said. “I hate to sound fuzzy here, but this is a work in progress. The situation changes every day across the state.”

The PIAA made no distinction between schools offering online classes or providing in-person instruction when it released new covid-19 return-to-competition guidelines last week. If the governor intervenes as suggested Monday, it’s possible neighboring districts could face different restrictions based on their fall education model.

“If they do that, they’re putting the districts in a tough spot,” Rometo said. “Nobody wants to be the district that says we’re not going to field teams this year. … I’m sure you’ll see families who say, ‘You know what? We’re going to pull our kid from this school and can afford to send them somewhere else.’”

Many teams have worked out together since late June or early July while cautiously anticipating a fall season. Wolf announced last week that he wasn’t planning to order all schools closed and would leave education decisions to local school boards, which had further boosted that optimism.

“That statement by Gov. Wolf certainly threw us for a loop,” Moon athletic director Ron Ledbetter said.

Just because a school doesn’t think it’s wise to have its entire enrollment in classrooms doesn’t mean it’s necessarily problematic for sports teams to work out, Ledbetter said.

“We’re in smaller groupings,” he said. “When we’re here at the school (for classes), we have 1,200 to 1,300 kids roaming the hallways that are mingling with each other in different classrooms. Football is our biggest sport. We have 80 kids.”

Riverview, a Class A school, has 38.

“That’s a little easier to social distance,” Rometo said. “We stay outside. We don’t use the locker rooms. We’re going to be lifting outside.”

Karen Arnold, athletic director for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said it’s undecided whether her district will have sports this fall. City League teams have held workouts this summer, but the future remains unclear.

“A decision hasn’t been made at this point in time,” Arnold said.

The governor’s office first announced covid-19 guidelines for restarting professional, college and high school sports in June. Those guidelines say: “During the Yellow and Green phases of reopening, sports-related activities at the PK-12 level are limited to student-athletes, coaches, officials and staff only. The addition of visitors and spectators will be contingent upon further health conditions within the state and local communities.”

Asked Monday if spectators soon will be allowed, Wolf deferred to the information coming later this week.

“We’re just trying to keep up with the virus,” Wolf said, “and trying to give the guidance that we can to help parents feel and students feel, and the teachers and coaches and administrators feel, that they can safely come back to education.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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