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Chester County athletes, parents hold ‘Let Us Play’ rally outside health department

Owen J. Roberts athletes hold up their signs during a rally outside the Chester County Health Department on Monday in West Chester. (Owen McCue - MediaNews Group)

With many of their seasons cancelled, suspended, postponed or in doubt, Chester County student-athletes and parents and others from around the area decided to try and make sure their voices were heard Monday.

Their message? Let us play.

A group of about 70 made known their support for playing high school sports this fall with a ‘Let Us Play’ rally outside the Chester County Health Department in West Chester.

The department’s current recommendation is that high school sports not be played until 2021, prompting the postponement of the Ches-Mont League and Central League fall seasons and causing worry for other Chester County athletes like those at Pioneer Athletic Conference member Owen J. Roberts.

“We want to see if they can reverse their decisions,” said Garnet Valley senior football player Kevin McGarrey. “Only three districts in all of Pennsylvania aren’t playing and we’re one of them. The whole rest of Pennsylvania is playing and we’re trying to reverse the decision of our league officers and officials. … It’s good seeing these guys coming together. We’re all one team now and trying to play.”

Monday’s rally was organized by Owen J. Roberts senior girls soccer and football player Olivia Kqira and her mother Dana and OJR senior football player Dante DeNardo and his mother Donna DeNardo.

They reached out to other athletes from OJR and those they knew at other schools in Chester County to spread word of their intent to hold Monday’s rally. Dana Kqira and Donna DeNardo also used social media to spread awareness of the event, including a Facebook calendar event.

“Dante and I organized this to really show our dedication and support for everyone who wants a season,” Olivia Kqira said. “We just want our seasons because as much as physical, it’s very important for our mental health. Sitting in our house seven hours a day online is not very ideal. Kids need an outlet through sports and other things to occupy their minds.”

Chester County athletes hold up their signs during a rally outside the Chester County Health Department on Monday in West Chester. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Following the recommendation of Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education, the Chester County Health Department announced that it did not recommend competition in any sport until Jan. 1, 2021. The recommendation, found in the Chester County Health Department’s Return to School guidelines from Aug. 5, also asserted that the decision was under the discretion of a school entity’s governing body.

Made up of teams in Chester and Montgomery counties, the Ches-Mont League announced Friday that it will not play sports until January, citing the current health and safety recommendations from the state and county. The Central League, made up of teams in Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties announced Friday that it delayed the start of its fall season until at least October .

“It’s honestly really rough, especially when you’re working for the season beginning in January. It’s all you look forward to really,” said Downingtown West junior football player Costantino Villari. “It’s a big disappointment because it helps a lot with school, it’s a good stress relief and it’s a really amazing environment coming together as a team. To have that pushed back or effectively cancelled is a huge disappointment.”

“We want to show them that it’s more than just sports and games for us,” Downingtown West senior football player Evan Wickersham said of his reason for coming to the really. “For all these people, it’s an escape from our everyday lives, especially now with the coronavirus.”

 

Owen J. Roberts is one of two PAC schools located in Chester Country. The other, Phoenixville, cancelled fall sports with the exception of girls’ tennis and boys’ and girls’ golf on Aug. 6. OJR has not announced any cancellations to its fall sports season. The athletic department announced tryout dates Monday morning, and the PAC plans to allow practices to begin Sept. 7 with games to follow Sept. 25.

The OJR school district changed from a hybrid plan to all virtual learning on Aug. 14 due to new guidelines from the Chester County Health Department, which is why some parents and athletes were worried about the status of sports. The district calendar doesn’t have any meetings scheduled until a Committee of the Whole Meeting on Sept. 8, the first day of online classes. The next School Board meeting on the calendar is Sept. 21.

“My concern is that we’re going to get up to Sept. 8, get ready to go, all excited, and they’re going to call it then,” Dante DeNardo said. “Right now, that’s a date circled on people’s calendars for deciding whether or not we’re going to play. We’re hoping that if they’re going to cancel it, cancel it before or let us play.”

“I think basically it’s emotionally draining,” said OJR parent Kristie Smith, who mentioned watching other Chester County schools cancel their season has added onto the stress of an already stressful summer. “My daughter’s only a freshman but it’s taken a toll on her, and I think they need to play, they need to be back in school. That’s why I’m here.”

An Avon Grove athlete and parent hold up their signs during a rally outside the Chester County Health Department on Monday in West Chester. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

With decisions already made on the status of their fall seasons, athletes and parents from the other Chester County school are holding out hope they can find a way to play.

“They postponed the season based on a sentence that the Chester County Health Department said,” Avon Grove parent Missy Dixon said. “At this point, my son is my last child, he’s a senior. It’s an emotional thing for him along with all the other kids. They’ve been following the rules, doing everything they were supposed to do working out all summer with keeping distanced, non-contact. Youth sports are going on all around.

“It seems like there’s gotta be something they can do for these kids, whether it’s a shortened season, a tournament, giving them the excitement of being on a team, being leaders for the younger kids.”

As they await the start of their seasons, OJR student-athletes and parents plan to use resources like social media and word of mouth to advocate for fall sports to continue as planned.

Owen J. Roberts senior cheerleader Kiersten Longworth started a petition on Change.org urging the school district and superintendent Dr. Susan T. Lloyd to allow athletes to participate in athletics this fall. The petition had 595 signatures before the rally Monday afternoon.

“I just wanted to get it out there for people that we could try to get everyone involved and tell everyone that we need to play, it’s really important to all of us and try to get as many people to sign as possible,” Longworth said. “We saw that there was going to be a meeting on our decision and we saw that the school was going all virtual, so we kind of started to worry fall sports were going to get cancelled.”

Regardless of the decisions that end up being made on sports, those who attended Monday hope that their voices will not fall on deaf ears.

“Hopefully it raises the awareness that people have the opportunity to have a voice and hopefully make a change and impact the decisions of administrators,”  West Chester Henderson parent Rich Kuegler said. “I think that’s the biggest frustration. I think voices go unheard. … Now that the facts, the data, the science is out there to prove that this can be a safe environment they need to react and make a good decision.”

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