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Fall sports in Delaware cleared another major hurdle.

After an hours-long discussion Thursday night, the Delaware State Board of Education approved fall sports in Delaware in a vote 4-3. Field hockey, football, boys soccer, volleyball, and cross country teams can begin practices on September 28, 2020.

The state board challenged DIAA officials on their decision, which went from a unanimous decision to delay sports until December to, last week, voting to begin play with less than three weeks notice.

Last month, the Delaware Department of Education voted to approve a shift of the Winter-Fall-Spring schedule to a condensed six-week regular season beginning in December.

The decision to play fall sports in Delaware comes while just three traditional public high schools, all downstate - Woodbridge, Seaford, and Cape Henlopen - along with vocational school Polytech are experiencing any form of in-person learning. Six charter schools are in hybrid format while Delaware's private schools are operating under a mix of in-person and hybrid learning.

DIAA Board President Dr. Bradley Layfield defended the 180, noting multiple times that 23% of fall athletes in Delaware play football, a sport that wasn't approved by the Delaware Division of Public Health until early September.

"If we were to move forward with fall sports in the traditional fall season, we would have been discriminating against that certain group of fall athletes. Now, we have safe return to play procedures moving forward so we want to move forward like the state has allowed us to do so."

Caesar Rodney Superintendent and DIAA Board Member Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald said he appreciated concerns that some schools may be in poor position when it comes to being ready for sports, on short notice, but that shouldn't drive the overall decision-making.

"Will there be inequity? Yes, but no matter what we do at any time, there is always an inequity. That, more than anything else has led me to change. The fact we have been able to open, we have been able to do certain things with students we didn't know we would be able to do. There still will be challenges with buses, with spectators and games, and DPH protocols, but we did it for graduations, so I know we'll be able to do it for sports."

Board of Education President Whitney Sweeney led the discussion, and ultimately voted against the plan, after an internal debate in the final minutes.

"I so fundamentally want these kids to have sports, but I also really want my kindergartners in a classroom, and I think about what is the answer?  At the end of the day, there are no really clear, wonderful answers in front of us. We are the Board of Education so we have a different mandate than DIAA does."

Wali Rushdan voted against the plan after not getting an acceptable answer for why the start date needed to be changed from the December condensed schedule back to the three-season model under such a short timetable.

"Should we be able to have sports for our kids? Absolutely. Is this unfair for them? It's absolutely unfair. Will this affect them adversely? I think that that's clear. But I don't know that those are the compete questions that are relevant here."

Dr. Audrey Noble was skeptical that every district would be ready in time.

"I also doubt that all of our schools, all of them and districts, are safely ready to start fall sports. Especially since the last proposal that DIAA made and we approved told them to delay until December. Most important, I think at the core of this decision is the tension between the rights of individuals and the responsibility to the community. The interests of some versus the common good of all."

Discussion also wandered towards why sports are getting special treatment over other extracurricular activities in Delaware. DIAA Executive Director Donna Polk pointed out that DIAA is unique in the education environment.  

"I'm sorry that the other activities do not necessarily have the platform or unit under the Department of Education to speak out and have a voice, but the public did speak, and I heard this board did speak that they weigh the public whether we're for or against it. I don't want our agency to be penalized for our platform and what we stand for."

Nina Lou Bunting, Candice Fifer, Rev. Provey Powell, and Vince Lofink voted for the shift back to September. Board President Whitney Sweeney, Wali Rushdan, and Dr. Audrey Noble voted against it.

DIAA's approval does not mean that every school will necessarily play fall sports. Only one district, Capital, has voted in favor of passing the regulations, as of Thursday.

Issues include increased cost for PPE, and transportation, with most Delaware school buses are limited to 23 students due to social distancing concerns.

Fitzgerald said after talking to fellow superintendents and heads of school, it wasn't clear to him who might back out, but Caesar Rodney will be ready to the best of its ability.

"I do not know what each district, what each school board, what each charter school will do when you make your decision, but we have a plan in moving forward to support our students."

Polk felt it wasn't her organization's responsibility to advocate for every one of their member schools.   

"We're not here to mandate if a school wants to participate or not. I do want to make sure that we understand our role. We are here to put the guidelines in place for athletics, and it really is up to our member schools to determine the level of participation and how they are able to do that, based on the resources they have."

There is also no indication on spectator restrictions, but current Delaware reopening guidelines limit outdoor gatherings to 250 people.

Middle school sports have also been approved by the DIAA, but in a parent survey issued earlier this week, the Christina School District said they were not looking at middle school sport. Instead, they district focus on the interest and feasibility of playing high school sports.