Republican-sponsored legislation that would give Pennsylvania school districts the final say over whether to hold sports and other activities during the pandemic cleared a House committee Thursday, one day before the governing body for interscholastic sports was to decide the fate of the fall season.
With dozens of parents, students and coaches staging a “Let Our Kids Play in PA” rally on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg, the House Education Committee passed a bill that would give “exclusive authority” to public and private schools to make decisions on sports, and require them to develop safety protocols.
Majority Republicans in the Legislature introduced the legislation after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf issued a “strong recommendation” that all youth athletics be canceled until 2021 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Wolf and his administration have repeatedly said the decision on whether to hold fall sports rests with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and individual school boards.
Some districts and leagues have already canceled fall sports, saying the risk of spreading the virus is too great, while others plan to play if they get the PIAA’s blessing. Several Pennsylvania high schools have already reported virus cases among athletes, prompting temporary shutdowns of sports programs.
The bill passed the committee largely along party lines, though it attracted the support of two Democrats.
The PIAA had been making plans to start the season as scheduled when the Wolf administration recommended Aug. 6 that scholastic and recreational youth sports be put off until January.
The surprise announcement prompted the PIAA to push back the start of mandatory sports practices for two weeks while it decided on its next move. The PIAA board plans to meet Friday to make a final decision on fall sports. It has signaled that it is seriously considering moving forward with sports despite the governor’s recommendation.
Outside the Capitol on Thursday, a small rally crowd pushed for the resumption of fall sports, chanting “Let them play! Let them play!”
Ashlyn O’Neill, a senior at York Catholic High School, asked the PIAA to “fight for us” and allow sports to continue, saying that canceling them would take a physical and mental toll on high school athletes as well as hurt those hoping to get noticed by college recruiters.
“This was supposed to be our year,” said O’Neill, adding: “I beg those of you who played athletics at any point in your high school life, how would you feel if you didn’t get to play?”
The House Education Committee also approved a bill that would give students the right to repeat a grade to make up for lost instructional time, canceled sports or other extracurricular activities because of the virus. It would also give special education students the ability to remain enrolled in public school for an additional year after they turn 21. The bill got three Democratic votes, while one Republican voted no.
The Wolf administration cast both bills as unnecessary.
“Instead of running a bill that redshirts high school athletes, the Republican legislature should focus on partnering with the administration to battle the pandemic and allocate additional resources for small businesses and implement protections for our front-line workers like paid sick leave,” said Wolf’s spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger.
A third bill, relaxing teacher certification requirements, also cleared the committee. The Senate has already approved that bill, and the Wolf administration said it supports it.
In other coronavirus-related news in Pennsylvania on Thursday:
PENN STATE CRACKDOWN
Penn State has suspended a fraternity for hosting a party that violated the school's COVID-19 ban on Greek gatherings, the university announced.
Penn State took action against the Pennsylvania Lambda chapter of Phi Kappa Psi as a result of videos and photos shared on social media, which showed the fraternity hosted an indoor gathering of more than 15 people, officials said. Penn State has banned fraternity socials during the pandemic.
Penn State officials also said they had to disperse crowds of students, many of them maskless, who were congregating on campus late Wednesday in violation of university policies and State College ordinances.
In a note to the campus community, Penn State President Eric Barron warned that such behavior could prompt the university to send students home and shift to remote instruction.
“I ask students flouting the University’s health and safety expectations a simple question: Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?" Barron wrote. “This behavior cannot and will not be tolerated.”
PHILADELPHIA TO ALLOW INDOOR DINING, THEATERS
Philadelphia plans to allow indoor dining to resume and theaters to reopen on Sept. 8, albeit with many restrictions that mirror those previously announced by the state.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city has seen a steady decrease in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests. He also said the city has managed to contact trace just under 70% of cases, meaning the city is now meeting or close to meeting the goals for reopening set earlier this summer.
Restaurants will be required to limit indoor seating to 25% capacity, and alcohol may only be served as part of a meal. City bars will remain closed, Farley said.
Theaters will be allowed to reopen with limited capacity of up to 25 people. Patrons will be required to wear masks and no food or drink will be allowed.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this story.