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Chester County Press

Ches-Mont League Schools to Move Forward with Fall Sports, Cautiously

08/11/2020 04:31PM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
In a decision reached last week by its athletic directors, the 13-member Ches-Mont League voted to proceed with a fall 2020 sports schedule, one that will offer student athletes the opportunity to participate in cross country, field hockey, football, golf, soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball – all under the watchful eye of strict COVID-19 safety protocols.

During an online meeting on Aug. 5, league officials reached an agreement to begin the fall sports season on Sept. 7, and to kick off competition beginning on Sept. 25. A league schedule for fall sports is expected to be created and distributed near the time of the Ches-Mont’s next meeting on Aug. 24, pending each school’s availability of resources, preparation and school board approval.

The schools in the Ches-Mont League include Avon Grove, Bishop Shanahan, Coatesville Area, Downingtown East, Downingtown West, Great Valley, Henderson, Kennett, Oxford Area, Bayard-Rustin, Sun Valley, Unionville and West Chester East.

As part of their decision, the athletic directors agreed that each school will play a Ches-Mont League-only schedule, and that the league would not be divided into its normal National and American divisions. It’s part of a design to localize the Ches-Mont, said Patrick Crater, supervisor of athletics for the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

“Our rationale behind the decision to create our schedule based solely on Ches-Mont schools was that if all 13 schools played only 13 schools, that it would help close the circle, and keep things local,” he said, “not only as a risk mitigation strategy, but to also ease the burden on officials, limit excessive transportation and better solve the other logistics we normally deal with in terms of school and league sports.”

The league’s decision came just before major recommendations from two of the state’s governing bodies, and the principal overseer of Pennsylvania high school sports.

On Aug. 6, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf supported the joint recommendation made by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Education that Pre-K–12 school and recreational youth sports be postponed in the state until at least Jan. 1, 2021, to protect children and teens from COVID-19.

The state’s recommendation to pause youth sports until Jan. 1, 2021 applies to team and individual, school and non-school recreational youth sports; includes competitions, intramural play and scrimmages but still permits school athletic programs to continue conditioning, drills and other training activities on an individual basis.

“The administration recognizes the importance of getting children back to school, while also protecting the safety and well-being of students and educators,” the press release stated. “The guidance represents endorsed best public health practices related to social distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting in school settings. It also outlines how to accommodate individuals with disabilities or chronic conditions, procedures for monitoring symptoms, and responding to confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in the school community.”

“The guidance is that we ought to avoid any congregate settings, and that means anything that brings people together is going to help that virus get us and we ought to do everything we can to defeat that virus,” Wolf said at a press conference last week. “So any time we get together for any reason, that’s a problem because it makes it easier for that virus to spread.” 

The departments stressed that their viewpoints were a recommendation only, and not an order or a mandate.

“As with deciding whether students should return to in-person classes, remote learning or a blend of the two this fall, school administrators and locally elected school boards should make decisions on sports,” the release said.

PIAA recommendations

One day later, by a vote of 30-2, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Board of Directors announced that it would be postponing the start of the state’s fall sports season until Aug. 24 while it pursues “a dialogue” with the Wolf administration, the state legislature and all athletic stakeholders, in order to get clarification on how to conduct safe athletic activities during the fall semester.

Under the PIAA’s recommendations, heat acclimation week for football -- as well as the start of workouts for all other fall sports programs – can begin on Aug. 24, and the opening date for games will be moved from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11.  

“We have spoken with a member (of Gov. Wolf’s staff) and we seem to be going back and forth,” acknowledged PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi. “The impetus of the request made is to ask the governor to reconsider. The next two weeks we are going to do our darnedest to meet with as many stakeholders as we can, including the (state’s) General Assembly, and hopefully the staff of the Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Governor’s office to see if we can collaborate about supporting fall activities.”

While it is safe to proclaim that the Ches-Mont’s decision to proceed with a fall sports program is cause for celebration among its student athletes, coaches and much of the local high school sports community, it will likely receive criticism from those who feel that the league is playing a game of Russian Roulette with its players and coaches, subjecting them to a dangerous virus that has already killed over 165,000 Americans, close to 14,000 Pennsylvanians and nearly 350 residents in Chester County.

The silver lining in a potential storm cloud, athletic directors say, is that while the Ches-Mont League fall sports programs are scheduled to be played, they will do so under the safety guidelines of key watchdogs: the Wolf administration, which includes the state’s Department of Health under Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine; the PIAA and the Chester County Health Department.

Each school has also provided its own safety guidelines to all players, coaches and families on their website.

(Under current policy, if a player or coach is found to have COVID-19, each school will follow the guidelines specified by school district’s health and safety plan in consultation with the county’s health department, who will be conducting contact tracing tests throughout the fall. If one positive case is detected, the individual and his or her teammates/colleagues will be quarantined for a period of 14 days. If two or more cases are found, the department’s guidelines state that the entire school will shut down for a period of 14 days.)

“These agencies all serve as our governing bodies, and I would say that they really have a good idea of what’s going on,” said Kyle Christy, athletic director for the Avon Grove School District. “They’re the ones who have the most up-to-date knowledge of the facts, and they’re the ones who are spending every day and every hour working to make sure that the risks are mitigated and that our athletes and coaches are safe.”

Crater said he has had many discussions with U-CF officials as well as his fellow athletic directors that weighed the pros and cons of moving forward with a fall sports schedule. “There is certainly a risk of playing, but there is certainly a risk of not playing, as well,” he said. “When you think about the higher purpose of sports, at the end of the day when you look back, is it really about the wins and losses, or the trophies and the championships? Most would agree that when you look back on your high school days, you remember that while competing was fun in the moment, the higher purpose of sports – especially in the situation we’re living through now -- is to support the children’s emotional, social, mental and physical health, and provide them with the opportunity to be outside and exercise, during a period when many are isolated.”

Crater noted that summer workouts for Unionville athletes began on June 22, and since then, they have served as a necessary balm that has kept student athletes on campus, as well as motivated and engaged.

“Another factor we all recognize is that our kids love to play sports, and if we don’t have sports, these students are going to find someplace else to play sports. We have a very strong health and safety plan created by health professionals and built by a task force of stakeholders, so having the kids on our campus under the supervision of trained coaches, supported by a thorough health and safety plan makes us feel confident in giving kids the opportunity to be well.”

Christy said that Avon Grove’s sports programs began their summer voluntary workouts on July 1, and wherever possible, coaches have focused on individual and group drills that enforce social distancing and non-contact.

Empty stands and bleachers

As professional sports leagues have begun to cobble together their respective seasons that have been severely shortened and interrupted by the coronavirus, they do so either in a self-isolating bubble or by means of a truncated traveling schedule. For those who have tuned in to see the new look of professional sports, perhaps the most startling change has been that these leagues have been conducting their affairs without spectators.

This fall, the stands and bleachers at Ches-Mont League games will look just as vacant, as the league has decided that public attendance will not be permitted at athletic events, which also includes school marching bands at football games.

One of the most difficult tasks Crater has had to make recently is to share the bad news with the members of the Unionville booster club.

“If I put myself in the shoes of the parents, I recognize how disappointing this is, and if I put myself in the shoes of the athletes, I know how important the ‘Friday Night Lights’ experience is,” he said. “It’s disappointing for all of us, but in order to play, it’s our responsibility to mitigate risks to the best of our ability.”

Thanks to the ingenuity of live streaming, however, many Ches-Mont fans will still be able to follow their friends, classmates, sons and daughters in action this fall. At Avon Grove High School, the student-led AGTV will be broadcasting several Red Devil sports on the school’s website.

“The students who run our AGTV program have been awesome,” Christy said. “By doing it all in-house, we will have the capability to place a camera in our gymnasium to record our volleyball games, and we are also working on getting a camera outside for a lot of our outdoor sports. It is our goal to have every home game streamed, with the exception of golf.”

Like every other athletic director in the Ches-Mont, Crater remains resolute in his district’s commitment to its student athletes. In his recent letter to the UCSFD community, he stressed that during the upcoming fall athletic season, “Teamwork will be more important than ever, and I’m not just referring to passing the ball or communicating on the court,” he wrote. “A good teammate will stay home when they’re sick, wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash their hands, use good judgment, and make responsible decisions for the health and safety of their teammates, classmates, coaches, and the entire community. The ultimate measure of accomplishment this year will be excellent teamwork.

“Our athletes will have the opportunity to be part of a team and enjoy being with friends; they will spend lots of time outside working hard and exercising, and they will have fun.”

In the end, Crater said, making the league-wide decision to create a fall Ches-Mont schedule, he said, was done so in order to create a sense of normalcy during a time of great uncertainty.

“This fall, the emphasis won’t be on championships and trophies and winning at all costs,” he said. “In fact, winning will be the least important thing that will happen this fall. We’re at a point where we will embrace and enjoy any and all opportunities that we have, in order to play.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].