The Hempfield girls volleyball team willingly opted to wear masks at all times this fall – at practice and during matches.
“We were all OK with it because we want our season,” Hempfield senior Emma Bitner told LNP|LancasterOnline in a postgame interview Sept. 28. “We obviously don’t want our season to get canceled … so we’re willing to make sacrifices in order to be able to play.”
The Black Knights went on to win the District Three Class 4A championship and reach the state semifinals.
Fast forward to the latest chapter in the ongoing saga that has become COVID-19 and sports: In a video conference Thursday morning, Lancaster-Lebanon League athletic directors agreed on a measure that will require all winter sports student-athletes, coaches, referees, game staff and spectators to wear face coverings at all times.
“Listen, it’s the right thing to do,” L-L executive director Ron Kennedy said. “If you want to have a season, you wear a mask. I know that sounds simple. But in order to have a season and successful season, that’s our only choice.”
The decision came after weeks of discussion among each school’s administration and medical support staff. It came as coronavirus cases continue to surge in the state, as LNP|LancasterOnline reported Thursday that national models project Pennsylvania hitting 22,000 COVID cases a day this month and running out of ICU beds.
It came about two weeks after the state Department of Health’s Nov. 17 mitigation order to require all athletes, coaches and officials to wear a face covering at all times, except for swimmers in a pool – the virus cannot be spread through the chlorinated water in pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the mitigation order listed exemptions to the rule, where an individual could remove a mask “if wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability.”
That led to the PIAA board of directors, a day after the state’s mask mandate, to pass a motion Nov. 18 that individual schools should consult with their solicitors and decide whether their athletes must wear masks while playing, or whether they may fit into any exceptions that would allow foregoing masks.
LNP|LancasterOnline was still contacting L-L schools when the Thursday decision came down from the league’s athletic directors. Here’s where things stood for some L-L schools as of mid-day Wednesday:
-10 had decided on having their student-athletes wear face coverings at all times (Annville-Cleona, Cocalico, Columbia, Conestoga Valley, Elco, Elizabethtown, Ephrata, Lancaster Country Day, Penn Manor, Pequea Valley).
– Three had opted against face coverings for live competition (Garden Spot, Hempfield, Lancaster Catholic).
– Two had not yet made a decision on the matter (Octorara, Lancaster Mennonite).
– Donegal decided to have its boys and girls basketball teams wear face coverings at all times, but not wrestlers during live competition.
The reality of some L-L schools playing with face coverings while others do not presents a conundrum. What would happen if Pequea Valley, which was requiring its student-athletes to wear face coverings at all times, was scheduled to play a road game at a school that was not doing the same?
“If we travel on the road and a team is not wearing face coverings, then we will not play that team,” Pequea Valley athletic director Mark Grossman said Wednesday.
Grossman also said Pequea Valley would not play host to visiting teams that would not go along with their mask requirement.
This led to the possibility of some L-L schools opting against playing other schools and was a key factor in Thursday’s decision by the L-L athletic directors to create a uniform policy requiring that all winter sports student-athletes wear face coverings at all times.
Another part of that decision was the requirement issued last week by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education for schools in counties with high COVID-19 rates to fill out and submit an attestation form to comply with measures such as wearing masks.
Counties with substantial community transmission have at least 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a percent positivity rate of 10% or greater. Currently, 66 of 67 Pennsylvania counties fit these criteria.
If a school did not sign the attestation form and comply with the mitigation strategies, it would be required to immediately shift to remote-only instruction and suspend all extracurricular activities, including sports.
“With the new rule from the governor and what schools have to sign to stay in school that mandates everyone wear a mask, even with athletic competitions, we wanted to eliminate any potential conflict there,” Lancaster Catholic athletic director Rich Hinnenkamp said Thursday afternoon.
Still, there are several remaining concerns when it comes to winter sports student-athletes wearing face coverings. While the Hempfield girls volleyball team wore them at all times this past season, volleyball isn’t necessarily a contact sport as much as basketball and wrestling. To mitigate any potential spread of the coronavirus, volleyball teams this past fall stayed on one side of the court the entire match, following a safety guideline from the PIAA. But in basketball, players are running up and down the court for several minutes at a time without a stoppage in play.
“There is no evidence that wearing a mask during vigorous physical activity depletes oxygen,” Penn State Health sports medicine physician Dr. Jessica Butts said. “New studies have come out in the last six weeks or so that show wearing a mask during vigorous physical exercise does not effect performance or athletes’ exhaustion.”
Among her many responsibilities in her positions, Butts is the on-field athletic trainer for Annville-Cleona. Sports medicine physicians from either Orthopedic Associates of Lancaster and Lancaster General Health have also been providing guidance on face coverings to several other L-L schools, according to the athletic directors interviewed for this story.
Asked which masks are most effective, Butts said, “In regard to efficacy, there’s not a huge difference or at least a big enough difference between cotton masks or surgical masks. When it comes to athletics, I say comfort is most important.”
Several L-L athletic directors interviewed for this story said they’re letting it up to each student-athlete as to what kind of face covering to wear.
Coaches are already making adjustments.
“We made it known to the kids,” longtime Elco boys basketball coach Brad Conners said. “If they’re struggling and need a break, take a break and go get a drink. To be honest, we didn’t make a lot of changes to our practice plan. Our first practice our kids were resilient and really good about it. Some kid might pull his mask away for a minute to grab a couple breaths. But he didn’t fuss with it. Nobody complained about it.”
In a story earlier this week in the Erie Times-News, Harbor Creek wrestler Connor Pierce said this in regard to masks for grapplers: “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to keep a mask on my face when I’m getting clubbed in the head.”
There are other considerations. This past fall, football players were exempted from wearing face coverings during play largely because of having mouthguards and helmets, which is worth pointing out considering many basketball players and wrestlers use mouthguards, especially those with braces on their teeth.
And what about student-athletes with a medical condition such as asthma? Will they be permitted a medical exemption from wearing a mask?
“I think schools will handle that on their own,” Kennedy said. “We as L-L athletic directors didn’t micromanage that as far as the mask.”
“Everyone is looking for an exemption, even those with asthma,” Butts said. “Our stance is you really need to try to wear a mask. The reality is even kids that have more severe conditions, they’re at higher risk of having a bad outcome when it comes to getting covid. And there are no studies that show masks impedes the breathing of those with asthma.”
Or, what happens when a mask either falls off or goes up over the eyes of a basketball player or a wrestler?
When reached by phone Thursday, Brian Wiggins, the president of the Lancaster Chapter of Basketball Officials who is entering his 21st season as a basketball referee, said he sought those answers from PIAA assistant executive director Pat Gebhart, who oversees referees.
“Gebhart came down and said we are not the mask police,” Wiggins said. “For the people not on the court, that’s up to game manager to enforce mask wearing. For the players on the court, if he loses a mask, I would wait until the next dead ball to have him replace his mask. It’s the same thing we do with a player who wears glasses.”
As part of Thursday’s decision by the league’s athletic directors, referees will also be required to wear face coverings when officiating L-L contests. Wiggins said it’s way too early to tell if that will result in any referees opting out this season. And he’s confident in the options available to referees when it comes to the challenge of wearing a mask and blowing a whistle.
“In college games, you can wear a mask and use an electronic whistle,” Wiggins said. “You can use a mask and put a whistle inside it. There are masks being made that hold a whistle inside. I’m starting to pass that information along to our referees.”
Another factor to keep in mind moving forward: What happens for L-L teams when it comes to nonleague opponents who don’t wear face coverings?
“It’s funny, while all this was going on (Thursday),” Kennedy said. “There were emails flying around the District Three server, asking District Three schools what they were doing.”
The Berks League passed a vote at its Thursday meeting that will require its winter sports student-athletes to wear face coverings.
The PIAA permitted winter sports practices to begin Nov. 20. However, several L-L schools opted to delay the start of those practices, many pushing back their first practice dates into December. And the L-L League Secondary Association voted Nov. 19 to push the L-L League schedule back to January, and cut the maximum number of regular-season basketball games to 17 for its member schools.
Off the court, measures are in place to have bench players spaced apart to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Ditto for wrestling. Speaking of which, matches might look a bit different in that schools are considering one of two options when it comes to sanitary measures. The first is putting two mats down, and having one be cleaned while a bout is taking place on the other. The second is having an intermission after six or seven bouts in order to have the mat be cleaned, similar to college matches.
Additionally, state health officials on Nov. 22 altered their public safety guidelines regarding spectators at indoor events, lowering the number of people allowed at indoor events to 10 percent of the venue’s max capacity, resulting in many L-L planning to limit two tickets per home player and cheerleader.
Perhaps between now and the start of L-L play in January, guidance will again change when it comes to face coverings and winter sport student-athletes. After all, the PIAA board of directors’ next meeting is slated for Wednesday, and the District Three Committee meeting is Dec. 15.
For now, the L-L League is standing arm-in-arm on the matter.
“We know that everything seems to change daily almost,” Warwick athletic director Ryan Landis said. “But the more unified our league can be for any topic makes it easier.”
“If that (wearing face coverings) is one thing we have to do to have a season,” Annville-Cleona athletic director Tommy Long said. “We’ll work it out.”
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