The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association board of directors met July 23 to discuss how the 2020-21 high school sports schedule would look because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but after more than two hours on the topic, no vote was taken. The board instead put off making any decision until its next meeting, which is Aug. 13, just four days before the scheduled beginning of fall practices.
Several options were presented, primarily by Jeremy Jeanne, the athletic director at Delaware Military Academy. Those came from the state’s athletic directors and included a delayed fall season and condensed seasons beginning in December. Each of the options included different versions.
The proposals covered student-athletes whether they are in school, completely at home or using a hybrid model of education. Some of the questions posed by the athletic directors and relayed by Jeanne in the case of condensed seasons related to the availability of facilities and officials. There was also some concern that athletes or coaches would choose their travel teams over their schools.
Bradley Bley, the medical member of the DIAA board, expressed concern with the idea of condensed seasons. Under that scenario, winter sports would begin with practice in mid-December, and fall sports would open in mid-February, with spring sports to follow. It is a very tight model, allowing approximately six weeks for each regular season. Bley said with a condensed season, any incidence of high community spread of coronavirus would basically end that season and jeopardize the next.
“It is something you need to consider. Risking losing a third or more of your games if we move to a high-spread situation,” Bley said.
Bley did say one thing with confidence in relation to football.
“As of now, there is no way (the state Department of Public Health) is going to allow football,” he said.
Bradley Layfield, the chairman of the DIAA board and principal of Sussex Central High School, said the Henlopen Conference model of condensing the seasons had a lot of support among those superintendents. Bley wasn’t so sure it was the best idea.
“I am not a fan of condensed schedules. Coronavirus is not going away. We’re still going to be dealing with the same issues in December, January and March that we are now,” he said.
Athletes who play multiple sports will be going from practice to practice with a different group of teammates. That raises transmission fears, along with the risk of injury from overuse. The doctor did say that studies show transmission among young people is very low, but there are coaches, staff and families to consider.
Another issue that was raised concerned transportation. As of now, a standard school bus can only take 23 passengers. In addition, some wondered if the high-risk sports (football, wrestling and boys lacrosse) were being singled out.
There was a suggestion to begin the fall practice schedule on time, then consider a delayed start if that’s what the science dictates. A concern was raised about students transferring to schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in order to have a fall season. Some of these young men and women, it was noted, see an athletic scholarship as their only avenue to attend college.
Layfield called the discussion “a good starting point. The state’s looking to this body to provide some guidance, and we look to our member schools. This, I think, was a fine example of what you can do when you get a lot of smart men and women together.”
Layfield suggested the board make a decision at its Aug. 13 meeting, but fellow board member and superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District Kevin Fitzgerald was concerned about the timing.
“Everything that we’re talking about revolves around a particular amount of time,” he said.
It was noted that no matter what the DIAA decides, under state law its action must be approved by the state Board of Education. The state board is not scheduled to meet until Aug. 20, which is three days after fall sports are scheduled to begin practice.
Fitzgerald said he understands the science of COVID-19 changes rapidly, “and we may need to pivot on our sports seasons.” But, he continued, “Making a decision with this board when it has to get regulatory approval” adds complications to any plans of athletic directors, coaches and athletes.
For the DIAA to gain autonomy over its decision-making, deputy attorney general Laura Makransky said, state law would have to change. That frustrated a number of DIAA board members.
“This board, any regulations that we change, then has to get approval from the state board of education. It’s frustrating that we can’t take any action on our own as a DIAA board,” Layfield said.
One concrete conclusion that came out of the meeting was the coaching out of season, allowed until Aug. 1, will have to cease as of that date.
Gov. John Carney’s decision on how public education will proceed this fall is expected in early August.
DIAA executive director Donna Polk began the meeting with some news about the effect of the coronavirus on the agency. The DIAA lost about $86,000 from the shortened state basketball tournament and approximately $220,000 overall with the loss of spring sports. If the association is unable to have championships this year, it would be looking at a deficit to begin the 2020-21 year.
“Come 2022, we would be struggling,” she said.