It's official: Fall high school sports get the go-ahead to start in Delaware

Brad Myers
Delaware News Journal

Grab your football helmets, field hockey masks, boys soccer shin guards, volleyballs and cross country singlets.

And most importantly, your face coverings and hand sanitizer.

It’s time to play high school sports in Delaware again.

The Delaware State Board of Education voted 4-3 on Thursday night to approve the action taken by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association last week, officially waving the green flag for the fall sports season to begin across the state.

Howard players celebrate after winning the DIAA Division II football championship game on Dec. 1, 2019, at Delaware Stadium. High school sports have been shut down in Delaware since March due to the coronavirus, but the Delaware State Board of Education voted Thursday night to allow the fall season to begin. Practices in football, cross country, volleyball, boys soccer and field hockey will start Sept. 28.

The season will proceed under the following calendar:


► Sept. 28: Practice begins.

► Oct. 23: Games begin.

► Dec. 5: Last date of regular season.

► Dec. 19: Last date of postseason.

Boys soccer, volleyball, field hockey, cross country

► Sept. 28: Practice begins.

► Oct. 19: Competition begins.

► Nov. 28: Last date of regular season.

► Dec. 12: Last date of postseason.

The calendar will allow for seven regular-season football games.

For the other fall sports, it will allow for six weeks of regular-season competition, with a maximum of 12 games or meets.

On Sept. 10, the DIAA board voted 14-2 to reverse course from its August decision and allow the traditional fall high school sports season – featuring competition in football, cross country, boys soccer, girls volleyball and field hockey – to be conducted this fall. The State Board of Education vote makes that official.

But while there may be some close games on playing fields across the state this fall, nothing will be closer than this vote.

After three hours and three minutes of presentations, public comments and discussion, Board of Education members Nina Lou Bunting, Candice Fifer, Vincent Lofink and Rev. Provey Powell Jr. voted yes.

Board President Whitney Sweeney, vice president Wali W. Rushdan II and Dr. Audrey Noble voted no.

"I know there will be people that are disappointed. I have no idea how this vote is going to end up going," Sweeney said just before the vote was taken. "There will be people disappointed on either side. But at the end of the day, I do believe everybody has the best intentions for all of our kids."

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The athletes and parents who worked hard to lobby the DIAA board, State Board of Education, Gov. John Carney and others for the last month certainly won't be disappointed.

"I think it is wonderful that this many parents are advocating for their children," Sweeney said. "Because if nothing else, children have learned that you need to stand up when you care about something, and you need to make your voice heard.

"It's a valuable lesson for all of those parents and all of those students who have participated and made sure their voices were heard. There's a handful of kids that I've seen their videos, I've seen their pictures. I know how much they want this."

But while the games and meets will begin again, they will look far different than they did in March, when high school sports stopped in Delaware due to the coronavirus.

Now all athletes, coaches, support personnel and spectators will be required to wear face coverings at all times, even when athletes are actively playing. Symptom and temperature screenings will be required for everyone.

Salesianum fans celebrate during a football game in October 2019 at Brandywine High School. The Delaware State Board of Education voted Thursday night to allow high school sports to resume this fall, but all spectators will have to undergo symptom and temperature screenings, wear face coverings and maintain social distancing at all times.

The lone exception this fall will be in cross country, where runners will not have to wear masks while running but must cover their faces before and after races.

It's a welcome return after high school athletes saw their seasons abruptly stopped due to COVID-19 earlier this year.

The quarterfinals of the DIAA Girls Basketball Tournament were completed on March 9. But the rest of the schedule for the state girls and boys basketball tournaments were postponed the next day, and ultimately canceled on March 12.

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Carney ordered schools closed statewide on March 13. Schools remained closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, and the entire spring high school sports season was wiped out.

Now schools have reopened statewide, with some providing all in-person instruction, some conducting online-only learning, and some employing a hybrid model of in-person and online.

That led to some questioning whether high school sports should resume, and that was an issue raised by some of the Board of Education members.

Another key issue was the DIAA board's complete reversal at its Sept. 10 meeting. The board had voted 15-0 to postpone fall sports at its previous meeting on Aug. 6, and the State Board of Education subsequently voted 5-2 on Aug. 14 to approve that DIAA decision.

Asked directly by Powell why "we're in a 180-degree direction from last month," DIAA board chairperson Dr. Bradley Layfield said updated guidance from the Delaware Division of Public Health released Sept. 1 allowed for football to be played –as long as all athletes wear face coverings over their helmets, even when they are actively playing.

Layfield said that 23 percent of all fall sports athletes are football players, and DIAA did not want to allow other fall sports to be played without them.

He also said since school has started, many school leaders are now more in favor of adding sports to the overall high school mix.

"Now versus a month ago, it's far different because we have a lot more information to go by," said Layfield, principal at Sussex Central High School. "... From an instructional standpoint, a month ago versus now, I feel a lot more comfortable because our teachers are a lot more comfortable."

Board of Education members also raised concerns about equity, including transportation issues that must be solved to allow all students to get to and from practices and games.

And while all Delaware high schools are now eligible to play fall sports, the final decisions will be up to individual schools and school districts. Some could decide to not play fall sports, or not field teams in all sports.

Lofink was particularly concerned about the five public school districts covering students in the city of Wilmington, and how differing decisions could impact athletic opportunities.

"If a school district chooses not to have sports, and their board and superintendent make that decision, that really brings about a tremendous issue of inequity for those children in the city of Wilmington," Lofink said. "They wouldn't be able to play for one school, but may be able to play for a school in another district whose feeder pattern is three blocks away."

So there are still many issues to be worked out before practices begin on Sept. 28.

But for now, Delaware's fall high school athletes have won the closest, most important game they will have all season.

Contact Brad Myers at Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ