The State Board of Education voted Aug. 14 to start school sports in December with the winter season, followed by a fall sports season starting in February.
In a 5-2 vote, the board approved a recommendation put forth by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, which had voted for the revised sports schedule at its Aug. 6. meeting. All three sports seasons will be played in shortened schedules.
Board President Whitney Sweeney thanked parents, athletic directors, DIAA and superintendents who all contributed to the board's decision.
“Much as I would very much like our kids to have some sense of normalcy and have the ability to run around on the field, at the end of the day I think we do have to recognize that we started school because we're there for academics,” Sweeney said.
A survey of school district superintendents showed 70 percent support a condensed three-sport season starting in December. About 20 percent were unsure, leaving about 8 percent who did not support the plan.
Thirteen parents – many among more than 4,500 who signed a petition in support of playing fall sports this fall – shared their concerns over fall sports played under bitter cold weather conditions, and also pointed out the inconsistency of allowing youth sports and tournaments to be played since June, creating a pay-to-play culture.
Lisa Hughes, who created the petition and is a parent of three student athletes, said her prime concern is for the safety of students.
“If we move them to February and March, daylight saving time has not yet begun, and we have inclement weather,” she said. “Also, pushing spring sports – which lost their whole season last year – into July creates conflicts with outside club teams with regional and national tournaments.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Hughes said her children have played youth sports safely all summer with temperature checks and waivers for participation, and it could work for fall sports played this fall.
Kathy Jezyk, a parent and pediatric nurse, said starting in the fall would allow schools to see what works and doesn't work using a smaller group of athletes playing outside. The decision to play should be left up to the parents and students, she said.
“I know athletes are going to choose to play, and parents who are able will pay for them to play,” she said. “Postponing the fall season to a February start will not stop athletes from competing. It simply stops those athletes who are not able to afford it from competing.”
Throughout the summer, crowds have packed the DE Turf Sports Complex in Frederica for lacrosse, soccer and field hockey tournaments, and Sports at the Beach in Georgetown has hosted baseball and softball tournaments nearly every weekend since mid-June, with more tournaments scheduled through early November. A football camp held at the 76ers field house in Wilmington was attended by nearly 300 athletes.
“Sports have been played throughout the state for weeks now without any major issues. Practices, games and tournaments have been going on that show us what will or, more importantly, what won't happen if you allow high school sports to resume,” said parent Jason Guarneri. “These events have not turned into super-spreader events like some feared would happen.”
Guarneri said parents should be the ones to decide whether it is safe for their children to play sports.
“Protecting our at-risk population is a responsibility of families, not the responsibility of the DIAA,” he said. “My employer doesn't protect my family when I get home, I do. That's my responsibility. The DIAA's responsibility is to get the kids back on the field, not protect the players' grandparents.”
In its Aug. 6 decision, DIAA approved a sports schedule that starts Dec. 14 with winter sports practice and the first day of competition Jan. 4. The last day of competition is Feb. 15 with state tournaments running as usual.
The fall season would follow with practices starting Feb. 19 and first day of competition March 12. Even though the Division of Public Health has not provided guidance for football or wrestling to begin, the fall season includes a six-game regular season for football ending April 17. Other sports would end competition on April 21. A football tournament would be condensed to four teams per division, and other tournaments would run as normal.
In the spring, practices would start April 19 with the first day of competition May 10 and last day June 19. State tournaments would run as normal.
Under the plan, all seasons have six weeks of regular competition and two weeks of tournament, but DIAA can approach the state board anytime before October to change the regulation, said Deputy Attorney General Carla Jarosz, who advises the state board.
Because this is an emergency regulation, Deputy Attorney General Laura Makransky, who advises DIAA, said there is a means for the public to submit petitions for consideration or to amend the regulation. She said petitions already submitted by parents will be placed on a future agenda for consideration by the DIAA Board of Directors.