While a spat continues in Harrisburg over how much power to give local authorities when it comes to K-12 students participating in sports, Delaware Valley school districts are moving forward with a fall season and welcoming spectators back.
The “Let Them Play” bill passed earlier this month in the state legislature with bipartisan majorities allowing local school districts to determine whether to allow sports and how many spectators would be allowed.
The legislation drew additional attention after originally passing with a veto-proof majority, only to see Gov. Wolf’s veto sustained when 24 Democrats flipped their votes.
“This bill is entirely unnecessary,” Wolf said when vetoing the bill. “While I recommended against holding school sports before January 2021, it was a recommendation… Local school governing bodies have maintained the authority to decide how extracurricular activities, including school sports, proceed.” He added that he believed it could undermine the Department of Health’s authority to combat COVID.
State Rep. Dan Williams (D-Chester) was one of those members who broke ranks to vote for the original version of the bill.
“He initially voted for the legislation because it seemed like one of the more reasonable pieces of legislation introduced against the Governor’s COVID policies,” Bill Schoell, Williams’ chief of staff, told Delaware Valley Journal.
Schoell said Williams backed the bill because it could be easily regulated. “It would be the school districts and the PIAA [Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association] that would be controlling the situation. It’s not as simple as a bar and restaurant. There are officials with political and legal responsibilities.”
However, Schoell hinted at the end of the interview that Williams might not vote to override the veto despite his initial support.
“There’s been a lot of things that have come out since this bill passed,” said Schoell. He specifically mentioned more information about so-called “super-spreader” events being revealed, and the PIAA saying that Wolf’s guidelines on crowds should be followed, were driving Williams away from the bill.
Shortly after the interview, Williams was one of 24 Democrats who flipped from supporting the bill to upholding the veto, meaning the override failed by just five votes.
The other Delaware Valley Democrats who initially voted in favor of the bill then refused to override Wolf’s veto were Tina Davis (HD 141-Bucks), John Galloway (HD 140-Bucks), Melissa Shusterman (HD 157-Montgomery), and Wendy Ullman (HD 143-Bucks).
Republicans were furious. One Republican representative on the floor of the House said: “I am dumbfounded by the 24 members who decided loyalty to their governor was more important than our kids and their families.”
Wolf heaped praise on the Democrats who upheld his veto, thanking them “for continuing to stand with me and showing a commitment to working collaboratively to protect the people of Pennsylvania during this ongoing public health crisis.”
Away from the politics of Harrisburg, districts in the Delaware Valley are already making moves to bring back sports.
West Chester Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jim Scanlon announced that “this Monday September 21, mandatory practices for fall sports will resume.” Golf competitions will resume later that week, tennis will return the following week, and October 5 will be the start date for other sports.
Pre-season at Haverford Township School District in the Central League will begin on September 29.
“Spectators will be allowed at tennis, golf, field hockey, soccer, cross country, football, and volleyball events,” on September 28 at Central Bucks School District, according to Superintendent John Kopicki and District Athletic Director Danielle Turner. Mask mandates and six-feet distance rules will be enforced for attendees, and each student will receive two game passes per family to get in.
Sports will look quite different though. At HTSD, athletes will be pre-screened daily, will not use locker or weight rooms, and will bring their own hydration.
Starting fall season sports now “allows for our winter and spring seasons to not be impacted by our start time and for them to be able to have their full seasons,” said Haverford High School Athletic Director Vanessa Robtison at a school board meeting on Monday.
She also said not cutting into the spring season was critical, since they already lost a season last year when COVID first started appearing in March.
With no plans to change the season, the stakes for the fall season are high. Kopicki and Turner said, “to hold these events in a safe and orderly manner, we are going to need the cooperation of parents, families, and the general public, or risk the possible cancellation of events, and/or sanctioning of teams or the school district and its personnel.”
HTSD Superintendent Pete Donaghy said at the board meeting, “it’s now or never for fall sports. This is it.” He added, “there is a lot of pressure to get sports off the ground now and get them working and get them working well.”
“Our hope is that we can get as much in as we can and have those experiences,” Donaghy said.