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Maryland State Board of Education votes to move high school sports start date to December

Old Mills' Deja Atkinson (21) in action against Howard's Anii Harris (4) during a girls high school playoff basketball match between Howard and Old Mill in this March photo.
Old Mills' Deja Atkinson (21) in action against Howard's Anii Harris (4) during a girls high school playoff basketball match between Howard and Old Mill in this March photo. (Daniel Kucin Jr./Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Winter high school sports for public school students across the state can begin Dec. 7, a move that will allow three separate seasons of about the same length before the end of the school year.

The move, voted on Monday by the Maryland State Board of Education will put pressure on some school systems to reopen sports programs for about 110,000 students that abruptly stopped in March when the coronavirus pandemic first forced the closure of schools.

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A number of school systems around the state are having their athletes practice now, but all winter sports will begin Dec. 7, with competitions beginning Jan. 4 and ending Feb. 13. Fall sports will begin on Feb. 13 and conclude competitions on April 17. Spring sports would begin April 17 and run to June 19.

The state board’s action moves the start date of winter sports up nearly two months. They were previously set to begin Feb. 1. The roller coaster of changes to the high school sports calendar in the past two months seems to have been settled with Monday’s vote, unless the virus requires schools to close again.

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Several state school board members said they wanted to encourage schools that had opened up their programs earlier than the large school districts in the Baltimore and Washington areas by giving them the opportunity to play competitively before Dec. 7, but the idea was dropped when it became clear that any change needed to be statewide.

If school districts don’t restart their conditioning and training programs soon, they will not be able to join winter sports competitions, said Andy Warner, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Under state rules, athletes must practice for 20 days before they can take part in competitions, he said.

The MPSSAA postponed the fall and winter seasons on Aug. 3 because of coronavirus concerns.

That decision came after the 2020 spring season was canceled. No Maryland public high school interscholastic competitions have taken place since March 7, the second day of the state basketball tournament quarterfinals.

At a news conference last month, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan said high school sports could begin practices Oct. 7 and competitions Oct. 27.

But most of the state’s school districts didn’t choose to resume play in October with the exception of Maryland’s most western counties — Garrett, Allegany and Washington — which will begin interscholastic competitions Tuesday.

Many of the area school districts appeared to be waiting for the state board’s action to set their dates.

Howard County will adopt the new schedule, school spokesman Brian Bassett said. Anne Arundel County schools will follow suit as well, said spokesman Bob Mosier, and said the plan reduces overlap between seasons and creates more opportunities for students. Baltimore City schools also signed on to the statewide effort to move the sports season earlier.

“I’m so excited. I want our kids back,” said Marsha Herbert, vice president of Carroll County’s school board and a former coach, of the Dec. 7 start date. “They need athletics so bad ... that makes me happy, it really does.”

South Carroll High sophomore wrestler Michael Pizzuto, the 2A-1A state champ last year at 106 pounds, said he’s been preparing for a season.

“I’ve been doing a lot of lifting and stuff over the offseason, and some practicing and some tournaments. But I haven’t been able to really go full ... so when I heard about it was super excited,” Pizzuto said.

But Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said school system staff still had “more work to do,” regarding any potential changes to its plan.

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Harford was one of four counties, along with Baltimore, Allegany and Garrett counties, that did not sign onto a letter from the Pubic School Superintendents Association of Maryland seeking an earlier return.

Harford’s plan, released Oct. 1, called for condensed seasons to begin in February and continue through the end of the school year in June. “Virtual athletics,” sport-specific weekly challenges and competitions for high school athletes to complete until seasons resumed in the second semester, began Oct. 12.

Individual school systems can limit student participation based on the level of community spread and other factors identified by the county health departments. And if schools are closed again because of a spike in cases then the athletic programs would be closed as well, the MPSSAA’s Warner said.

Schools competing in Maryland’s two largest private high school athletic organizations have the option to play an open schedule this fall. The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, which oversee dozens of private schools in the state, are allowing member schools to play unaffiliated. Numerous private schools will begin interscholastic competitions as early as this week.

Baltimore Sun Media Group editors Pat Stoetzer, Wayne Carter, Brent Kennedy and Randy McRoberts contributed to this article.

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