Guidance issued yesterday by Governor Wolf’s office demonstrates the constantly shifting directives shaping Pennsylvania school district’s re-opening plans.  Earlier this week, our office analyzed the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s preliminary guidance for re-opening Pennsylvania school districts and offered our interpretation of the steps a school district was required to undertake in order to resume in-person educational activities, including extracurricular activities.  As part of that analysis, our office interpreted the guidance to require that: 1.) school districts could not resume in-person activities, both educational and extracurricular, prior to July 1, 2020 under any circumstances; and 2.) before such activities could resume, each school district was required to adopt a Health and Safety plan addressing the safety measures the school district intended to undertake in a variety of areas.

Shortly after our office issued our interpretation, Governor Wolf’s office issued supplemental guidance addressing the resumption of sports throughout the state, including school-sponsored athletic programs.  Pursuant to that guidance, school districts located in counties which are in the yellow or green phase of re-opening, and which approve an athletic health and safety plan addressing athletic-related COVID-19 safety measures, may resume their athletic programs once the plan is approved by the school board regardless of the date.  The guidance states that the decision to re-open athletic programs is subject to the discretion of each school district, so long as a health and safety plan is in place prior to the resumption of athletic activities.  School districts are permitted to impose more stringent requirements than those contained in the guidance, if they so choose.  In addition, school districts should also be aware of the requirements applicable to all sporting events, at any level (professional, collegiate, and scholastic), which are reiterated in the following bullet points:

  • Coaches and league officials must review and consider the CDC guidance on consideration for youth sports to modify practices and games to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. This includes focusing on individual skill building versus competition and limiting contact in close contact sports.
  • The community, league, or team must designate a primary point of contact for all questions related to COVID-19, and all parents, athletes, officials, and coaches must be provided the person’s contact information.
  • The community, league, or team must develop a plan of action in the event an athlete, coach, or official falls ill, make the plan publicly available, and explain it to the entire sport community.
  • The community, league, or team must educate all athletes, staff and families about the symptoms of COVID-19 and when to stay home. Athletes also should be educated on proper hand washing and sanitizing.
  • Coaching staff and other adult personnel should wear face coverings (masks or face shields) at all times, unless doing so jeopardizes their health.
  • Coaches and athletes must maintain appropriate social distancing at all times possible, including in the field of play, locker rooms, sidelines, dugouts, benches, and workout areas. During down time, athletes and coaches should not congregate.
  • Coaches and athletic staff must screen and monitor athletes for symptoms prior to and during games and practices. If individuals participating in sporting activities show symptoms, have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, or are sick, they must be sent home.
  • All athletes, coaches, and officials must bring their own water and drinks to team activities. Team water coolers for sharing through disposable cups are not allowed. Fixed water fountains should not be used.
  • Activities that increase the risk of exposure to saliva must not be allowed including chewing gum, spitting, licking fingers, and eating sunflower seeds.
  • Avoid shaking hands, fist bumps, or high fives before, during or after games and practices. Limit unnecessary physical contact with teammates, other athletes, coaches, officials, and spectators.
  • Whenever possible, equipment and other personal items should be separated and not shared. If equipment must be shared, all equipment should be properly disinfected between users.
  • If multiple games are to be held at the same facility, adequate time shall be scheduled between contests to allow for facilities to be cleaned and disinfected, and to minimize interaction between athletes. Sports complexes with multiple fields may operate simultaneous games or practices on fields within a complex only if social distancing can be maintained.  Each individual game or practice at a complex must adhere to the gathering occupancy limits (25 in yellow, 250 in green), and the facility as a whole may not exceed 50% of total occupancy otherwise permitted by law.
  • Concession stands or other food must adhere to the Guidance for Businesses in the Restaurant Industry.

In addition to the above, the guidance further states that to operate games or practice, organizations and teams that are otherwise permitted to conduct in-person activities pursuant to this guidance are encouraged to do the following:

  • In counties in the Yellow Phase of Reopening, indoor training or sports may only be conducted by organizations subject to supervision or regulation of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association or National Collegiate Athletic Associations, and only in accordance with guidance provided by those governing bodies. Start by limiting games, scrimmages, and matches to teams in your region first. Expand beyond regional play if cases continue to stay low.
  • Adult athletes are encouraged to wear face coverings when they are not engaged in a sporting activity, unless doing so jeopardizes their health.
  • Coaches should create a back-up staffing plan which should include cross-training staff and coaches and training all coaches and officials on safety protocols.
  • Limit cash transactions to the extent possible; find alternative ways to charge admission and pay for concessions.
  • Create protocols to limit entrance and exit traffic, designating specific entry to and exits from facilities. Establish protocols to ensure staggered pick up and drop off for practice and events and ensure that athletes are not congregating while awaiting pick up and to ensure congregation or crowding does not occur on drop off. Pickups and drop offs should remain outside. Parents should not enter the facility.

Additionally, any sports related activities in counties under the yellow or green phases of the Governor’s re-opening plan must adhere to the applicable gathering limitations (maximum of 25 individuals in yellow counties, maximum of 250 individuals in green counties).  Occupancy of any facility must not exceed 50 percent of total capacity.  Most importantly for school districts, during both yellow and green phases, sports related activities at the scholastic level are limited to student athletes, coaches, officials, and staff.  Spectators are not permitted at this time.

It must be noted that this supplemental guidance addresses only athletics.  Accordingly, our previous interpretation of the guidance issued by PDE on June 3, 2020, remains in effect for all non-athletic related in-person activities, both educational and extracurricular.  Those activities are prohibited until July 1, 2020 at the earliest.  Regardless of the activity, if the activity involves students, the school district must approve a health and safety plan before students can engage in those activities, regardless of the date.  Should additional guidance in those areas be forthcoming, we will continue to update you.

Christina L. Lane
Christina L. Lane

Christina Lane is an accomplished school, municipal, labor and employment attorney representing public sector employers. She has extensive knowledge and experience with Title IX and often serves as a third-party investigator.