Avon Grove Officials Hold Out Hope That a Fall Sports Season Can Take Place
By Steven Hoffman
Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, once said that obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.
The Avon Grove School Board’s three-hour meeting on Sept. 3 provided plenty of evidence that district officials have their eyes focused on the goal of getting student-athletes back on the playing field as soon as possible. The school district is hoping that other schools in the Ches-Mont League will agree to seek some guidance from the Chester County Health Department on whether it would be safe to start the fall sports season at the same time that in-person classes resume. Right now, the recommendation from the Chester County Health Department has been to not reopen public schools until at least October 9. The recommendation from state and county health officials has been to not hold any sporting events for the remainder of 2020. But Avon Grove officials are holding out hope that a fall sports season can be salvaged—even if it is an abbreviated one.
The school board received numerous public comments from parents, local residents, and student-athletes themselves asking district officials to find a way to allow students to play fall sports. But district officials were quick to point out that there is no way for Avon Grove to move forward with a fall sports season without some cooperation from public health officials and some collaboration from the other schools in the Ches-Mont League.
"Let them play," was a theme of some of the public comments. It’s a sentiment that many parents of public school students in Pennsylvania can relate to right now. Let them play could be featured on a t-shirt or a yard sign. But it’s not a direction to a path forward for Avon Grove and other school districts that are grappling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We all wish it was as simple as voting to let them play,” said school board president Bill Wood. “It isn’t.”
He added that every school board member and administrator in Avon Grove is aware that sports and co-curricular activities are vital to the emotional, social, and physical well-being of students.
Avon Grove Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said that district officials are looking forward to the day when they can welcome students back to the classrooms and athletes back to the playing fields. But that’s not something that Avon Grove, or any school district, can achieve on its own.
Wood offered a proposal for the school board to draft a letter that would petition the Chester County Health Department to align the start of fall sports with the start of in-person classes if doing so would be supported by the updated data on the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
A presentation that followed outlined how high school sports in Pennsylvania are governed. Marchese explained that while the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), the non-profit corporation that oversees interscholastic athletics in the state, voted on Aug. 21 to allow fall sports, there were already state and county guidelines recommending that they not start on time. Avon Grove is in District 1, and that district had already decided that they were postponing or canceling the fall sports season. On Aug. 28, the Ches-Mont League also opted to postpone the fall sports season because of health and safety recommendations that were in place. There was a lot of discussion that the fall sports season could take place, in an abbreviated fashion, in the spring of 2021.
While Avon Grove officials are holding out hope that the Ches-Mont League can work together and perhaps plan out a fall sports season, there are a number of issues that must be resolved.
Marchese noted that there are significant liability concerns for any school district that would go against the guidelines of the health department. While it was suggested that parents could sign a waiver to allow their children to play sports, that would not be the case for public schools. Andy Rau, the solicitor for Avon Grove, said that waivers do not offer a simple solution that some might think. Parents can waive their own rights, but they can’t waive the rights of students who are minors. The school district would be vulnerable to lawsuits because it did not follow recommendations from the state and county.
Marchese also pointed out that if a school district attempted to start a season in the fall and then games had to be stopped again because of COVID-19, those athletes might lose their eligibility if an attempt was made to stage a season for the fall sports at some point next spring.
Another reason why Avon Grove can’t go it alone on a fall sports season is the need for competition. If the Ches-Mont League isn’t playing, Avon Grove doesn’t have a league to compete in, and no other leagues are going to welcome new schools in the current environment when everyone wants to keep travel to a minimum. “Our solution,” Marchese said, “would be to align the fall sports schedule with other schools in the league.”
The school board voted unanimously to petition the Chester County Health Department to align the start of fall sports with the start of in-person classes. The board also voted to extend the school health and safety plan that had already been approved. This will allow sports teams to continue to practice as much as possible, while following the recommended safety guidelines.
The members of the Avon Grove School Board took turns during the meeting expressing their desire to allow students to participate in sports and all the other co-curricular activities as soon as it is safely possible to do so. Marchese said that these activities are essential to the students’ high school experience.
Another issue that came up during public comment was the fact that Avon Grove is not providing busing for students who are attending private schools in the area. At this point, with Avon Grove’s classes taking place virtually, the district is not required to provide busing for these students. A number of parents asked the school district to reconsider its decision. Wood said that transportation will likely be discussed at the board’s Sept. 10 work session.