Lancaster-Lebanon League athletes should be prepared to begin fall practices at their on-campus facilities in mid-August, after the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association on Wednesday approved a 26-page return to competition plan.
There are still some sticking points — among them, will games start on time and how many fans will be allowed inside the facilities to watch — but after sifting through the plans, L-L League officials are optimistic that the fall season will start on time.
“It's a step in the right direction,” said Doug Bohannon, Elco's athletic director and the District Three chairman. “Of course, this could all change in the next five minutes. But I think we're trying, and (PIAA executive director) Dr. (Robert) Lombardi said it best: ‘If we don't try, shame on us. We're advocates for our student-athletes.’ ”
L-L League football teams are slated to begin heat acclimatization practices Aug. 10, with the first official football play date set for Aug. 28. The local prep golf season tees off Aug. 20, and all other fall sports teams begin practice Aug. 17.
“I'm not speaking for our 26 (L-L League) schools, but yes,” Bohannon said, "I'd think on Aug. 17, we'll all be ready to go.”
Part of the PIAA's plan gives an option for later start dates to the fall season, with football kicking off Sept. 18 and all other sports starting Sept. 14. Individual leagues or districts — there are 12 in the state — must make that call.
There is also a hybrid option, wherein all sports in a particular league or district must begin no later than Oct. 5. The WPIAL — District Seven — on Thursday voted to use the hybrid model this fall.
But it doesn't sound like the L-L League will go down that path.
“The hybrid plan helps some leagues and some districts,” Bohannon said. “I'm not saying it will help our league or our district because I think we'll try and stay on time — and that's just my opinion. I'm not speaking for the league or for the district, but I think we'll try and stay on schedule.”
The plan also calls for a 14-day quarantine for an entire team if a player tests positive for COVID-19, and an adherence to attendance of no more than 25 people indoors and 250 outdoors as mandated by the state. That very likely means no fans in the bleachers, which has led to an outcry among parents and fans. An online petition asking Gov. Tom Wolf to allow spectators at high school athletic events began circulating Thursday.
“We'll definitely need some kind of interpretation with that one,” said Rich Hinnenkamp, Lancaster Catholic's athletic director and president of the L-L League AD association. “As a league, we're trying to get some kind of camaraderie and agreement on some things, so we're all together. That's going to be really important moving forward."
All of the PIAA's plans, however, would be dashed if Wolf or the state's Department of Health pulls the plug on athletics. Individual school districts can also red-light sports; on Thursday, Norristown High School, a large District One program in Montgomery County, suspended all fall athletics. The administration there is recommending that those programs be canceled this year.
Also Thursday, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference — featuring schools in the greater Allentown and Bethlehem areas in District 11 — opted to push back its starting dates for fall sports.
For now, the PIAA has green-lighted practices to begin Aug. 17.
“The 26-page booklet that came out gives us more direction for each individual sport, and officials, and what game day will look like and what the pregame will look like,” Bohannon said. “That's another thing that people in schools now have to help them out. Is it all of the answers? Of course not. But it's a start.”
“It's another step toward having a better idea about what's going to happen,” Hinnenkamp added. “These are all positive steps, and I think we'll keep moving forward. But flexibility is the key word, because there's still no clear answer if we'll even be open.”
Many local school districts are currently deciding how classes will be conducted in the fall, with on-campus and virtual home-schooling as options.
For athletics, teams may continue preparing for the official Aug. 17 start date, and may continue summer workouts under their school's health and safety plans.
“We finally got some direction from the PIAA that people have been looking for,” Bohannon said. “Everybody has been looking at everyone else, wondering when we were going to get some answers to all of the questions. And I think this definitely helped a little bit.”
“Nobody knows for sure what the future is going to look like,” Hinnenkamp said. “And that's frustrating because we're not quite there. Nobody has the plan. There is no finality. But I don't think there is anyone out there who wants everything to be on shutdown, with no opportunities for our student-athletes.”