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School sports can return to practice Monday

Interscholastic and youth sports can resume in-person practice and competition beginning Monday morning as previously planned, Gov. Tom Wolf announced at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

Wolf announced the mitigation efforts put into place on Dec. 12 to help slow the spread of COVID-19 — including all extracurricular activities and youth sports — will be lifted Monday at 8 a.m. Wolf suspended interscholastic sports for three weeks just as area high schools and middle schools were preparing for the winter sports season.

The winter sports seasons can now resume following the same previous precautions which were previously in place prior to Dec. 12, including mandatory masking during competition limits on the number of people who are allowed to attend indoor events.

“This does not mean that we’re out of the woods,” Wolf said during his press conference. “The hope is by next Monday these restrictions will have had the effect of flattening the curve (of positive COVID-19 tests). I have every confidence the mitigation efforts we put into place on Dec. 12 will actually work. The limits we had then will continue to do good things.”

High school and middle school teams can play their first games, at the earliest, Friday, Jan. 8. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association requires each team to have a minimum of 10 days of preseason practice before it can play in competitions. A revised PIAA rule requires teams to also have four practices following 14 continuous days of missed practices for COVID-19 related reasons. Because the suspension of sports was because of COVID-19 mitigation efforts put forth by the governor, teams must have four days of practice once they return Monday before they can compete.

Teams which did not complete their 10 days of required preseason practice prior to the governor’s shutdown, must still complete those 10 days before it can compete.

“This allows for a return to play safely while still maximizing opportunities for people to get games or scrimmages in at their discretion,” PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi said during last week’s PIAA Board of Directors meeting. “We’re trying to maximize as many opportunities for play dates as possible. Even if you had no preseason practices before the suspension, you’ll still be able to open competition on the 15th and that gives time yo get through the months of January and February and have a pretty healthy season.”

Last week the PIAA Board of Directors also approved allowing high school teams to continue scheduling and participating in games up until the final day of the state basketball tournament on March 27. That allows teams to compete — without exceeding the maximum number of competitions allowed by the PIAA — even after it has been eliminated from the postseason. The PIAA put into place a similar rule during the fall season.

The lifting of Wolf’s mitigation restrictions comes after two consecutive weeks of a falling statewide positivity rate of COVID-19 tests. Wolf said Wednesday it appears the number of positive cases each day “has plateaued.”

“I wanted to everything I could to stick with (the three-week mitigation effort) as it was planned,” Wolf said. “We believe hospitals are still in position to handle the surges we’ve seen. The hospitalization rate is still high, and it’s too high, but it’s lower than it was at its peak two weeks ago. The mitigation efforts seem to be working.”

The PIAA has already made several changes to give high school sports as much of a regular season as possible, including limiting the number of teams and individual athletes allowed to compete in state meets and state tournaments during the postseason. It has also pushed back deadlines for districts to complete both regular seasons and district tournaments.

In its biggest move, the PIAA postponed the PIAA Team Wrestling Championships to a date which has not yet been decided. But Lombardi and PIAA chief operating officer Mark Byers said the state team tournament would be held following the state individual wrestling tournament, which is scheduled to finish Saturday, March 13. The PIAA is still finalizing a location to hold the state team tournament.

The PIAA has scheduled its next Board of Directors meeting for Wednesday, Jan. 6. But at its last meeting on Dec. 22, Board of Directors president Frank Majikes said the board was planning and preparing as if the governor’s restrictions would be lifted on Monday and it would adjust should the suspension of sports be extended.

“I think the board has shown they are advocates and supporters of student-athletes over the last year,” Lombardi said last week. “It’s important for us to make our best efforts to give every opportunity for student-athletes to participate.”

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