Fall sports gets OK: Narrow vote opens door for October start

Caesar Rodney head soccer coach Dwayne Lavender demonstrates a drill during the first day of practice at CR on Thursday Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Perhaps it was fitting that it was decided like this.

It was like some heart-pounding state championship basketball game where the lead kept changing hands in the closing seconds.

Finally, though, by a nail-biting vote of just 4-3, the state Board of Education decided scholastic sports can be played in Delaware this fall.

The vote came after more than three hours of debate among both the state board and board members from the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

In the end, the state board approved the DIAA’s plan to start the pre-season for high school sports on Sept. 28. Competition will start on Oct. 19 for all sports except football, which will begin on Oct. 23.

Individual school districts still can decide that their schools won’t take part in sports.

The state board pressed DIAA’s board members on what had changed between their votes in August, when they unanimously decided to delay fall sports, until September, when they voted to start right away by a 14-2 margin.

The biggest change, DIAA officials said, was that Gov. John Carney and state health officials said that football can be played in the state as long as certain protocol are followed. Previously, there was no guidance from the state about football.

Caesar Rodney captain Zander Omans reaches to block a shot during the first day of soccer practice at CR on Thursday.

On Thursday, DIAA officials said that — a few weeks after schools have opened — they have a better understanding of dealing with health guidelines.

At the same time, some state board members were bothered by the fact that sports might be starting before all students are physically back in school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have to say that I’m still not clear about those circumstances of kids returning to sports have changed in just one month since DIAA strongly supported a delayed schedule,” said board member Audrey Noble, who voted against the proposal.

“As one Delaware citizen said to me, the science hasn’t changed, the spread of the virus has not diminished in the last month — actually we’re seeing increases in most tracking data — and we know a lot of that has to do with colleges re-opening and other events.

“And I also doubt that all of our schools and districts are ready to safely start fall sports.”

Donna Polk, the DIAA executive director, said in some ways it’s not fair that so much attention is put on sports when there are other extra-curricular groups that want to start up again, too.

Caesar Rodney volleyball coach Nicole Shuba Johnson instructs players during the first day of practice at CR on Thursday.

“It doesn’t say that we’re more important than any other co-curricular activity,” she said. “It just means that we have the platform right now. We have an association that is sanctioned by the government to conduct it at this level.

“I just ask that the board not penalize us because we have a platform. I’m an education-based person. … The public gets to speak and I heard the board say that they weigh the public (input). Whether we’re for it or against it, this is where we are.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the state heard from 10 parents, only one of which was against starting sports this fall. Many were members of an on-line group of about 4,000 members who pushed to have sports played in the fall.

“Kids have no quality of life, everything they love has been ripped away,” said parent Sharon Urban, who said she is a nurse. “Our kids are suffering, mental health and substance abuse issues are rising.”

Group organizer Kelly Klerlein Boettcher, a mother of two Caravel seniors, called in from her daughter’s field hockey game at DE Turf.

“This should really basically be about choices,” she said. “And our choice as parents is to let our kids play. We’re not making anyone — if you feel it’s not safe — go out and play. People can choose to come out, they can choose to play. Or they can choose to stay out of the game.”

Thursday’s vote was probably the last big obstacle for playing sports in the fall.

Caesar Rodney soccer coach Frank Victory helps player Cyier Fitzgerald sign in during the first day of practice.

In August the DIAA board voted for the scholastic sports schedule to start in December with winter sports.

Traditional fall sports would have been played beginning in late February. All three sports seasons — winter, fall and spring — would have played shorter schedules.

The DIAA’s decision was made, in part, because state guidelines originally would not have permitted football to be played.
Considering that football includes 23 percent of the total number of fall sports in Delaware, board members felt it would have been unfair to leave one sport out of the fall schedule.

CR soccer player Sawyer Ott dribbles the ball during the first day of practice.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done before sports are played.

There’s a long list of protocols that will have to be followed, schedules will have to be re-worked and other logistics will have to be figured out.

“Will there be issues getting kids to school? … Yes,” said Caesar Rodney superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, a DIAA board member. “But as heavy a lift as it may be, we do see the value in having our students participate not only in athletics but in band and cheerleading.

“We are committed to doing the best that we possibly can to try to provide a meaningful experience to all of our children.”