Masking the Problem: High School Athletes in PA Face a Patchwork of COVID Policies

A+masked+Cortlynd+Rhodes+drives+to+the+basket+against+Penns+Valley+earlier+this+season.++Tyrone+boys+have+played+some+games+with+masks%2C+and+others+without+masks+this+season.

Lucia Isenberg

A masked Cortlynd Rhodes drives to the basket against Penns Valley earlier this season. Tyrone boys have played some games with masks, and others without masks this season.

With winter sports proceeding under unusual circumstances, the PIAA has left mask requirements for athletes as well as some other COVID-related precautions up to each individual school district.

“The PIAA has no authority to override any governmental action,” said PIAA general counsel Alan Boynton at the PIAA’s regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. “The governor requires masking at all events. That is in place, but at the same time, the guidelines also provide that schools can issue exemptions, and the PIAA does not have the authority to override those exemptions.”

This has led to a patchwork of policies that have resulted in some athletic events requiring masks for the athletes and others allowing competitions to occur without masks.

The governor requires masking at all events. That is in place, but at the same time, the guidelines also provide that schools can issue exemptions, and the PIAA does not have the authority to override those exemptions”

— PIAA general council Alan Boynton

Tyrone’s board approved district policy is that athletes do not have to wear masks to compete if the opposing team agrees to the same policy.

“I have to check with the other schools to find out what their policy is and communicate that to the coaches,” said Tyrone Athletic Director Luke Rhoades.

For example, when the girls basketball team played at Central earlier this season, Tyrone wore masks because Central’s policy requires their athletes to wear them in competition.

However, when the Indiana boys visited the Eagles last week both teams agreed to compete without masks, so none were worn by the athletes on the floor.

“Masks definitely make it more difficult to play, and we often aren’t able to stay out on the court as long as we normally would like to,” said Tyrone senior basketball player Blaine Hoover.

Referees and officials must also comply with the school’s policies and wear masks when both competing schools require it, but do not have to wear masks at events between schools that do not require them.

The mask requirement at some games has been a challenge for athletes, but most are just thankful that the season is moving forward and they are working to adjust to the masks and other COVID restrictions.

“It’s definitely tougher with masks because it makes it hard to breathe when you are constantly running up and down the court. It also makes it difficult to communicate with teammates during the game,” said senior basketball player Brandon Lucas.

Everyone else in attendance at games, including athletes on the bench, coaches, game workers, members of the media, and spectators are required to wear a face covering at all times and abide by social distancing guidelines, according to state and Tyrone district policy.

The winter sport most affected by the mask requirement and other COVID restrictions has likely been the cheerleaders.

“Our practices have been spent working on yelling while wearing a mask. This has been a struggle for the girls because yelling does not feel natural with a mask on. Masks also cover facial expressions. Those expressions are key to cheering and displaying emotions. We have spent a lot of our practice time making sure the excitement cheerleaders typically display at events is evident despite wearing a mask,” said Tyrone cheer coach Jessica Anderson.

Without fans, the cheerleaders are cheering to a largely empty gym and the lack of interaction with the crowd also makes cheering a challenge. Because of the limitations on spectators, the squad has been split into three groups and cheer parents are not currently allowed to attend games in person.

Wrestlers are also required to wear masks at all times when not competing, and also when competing if the opposing team or athlete requests that they be used.

“It’s just a little harder to breathe with the masks, and it’s easy for them to fall down, but other than that our matches have been pretty normal,” said Tyrone senior wrestler Tommy Hicks.

Tyrone boys basketball head coach George Gripp says that masks were an adjustment at the start of the season, but the biggest issue has been the lack of fans in the bleachers.

The first game at Bellefonte it took us a while to adjust (to the masks) but after that, I think we have been fine. Some kids have adjusted better than others”

— Boys Basketball Head Coach George Gripp

“The first game at Bellefonte it took us a while to adjust (to the masks) but after that, I think we have been fine. Some kids have adjusted better than others,” said Gripp, “The lack of fans has been a lot tougher to get used to. I’ve heard that over and over again from our players, The energy that is usually in our gym just isn’t there, it feels more like a scrimmage game than a real game. We really miss the student Dawg Pound and the feel of a packed gym.”

According to Tyrone Athletic Director Luke Rhoades, the Mountain League agreed on a league-wide policy to limit events to only two spectators per home team athlete.

For swimming, where masks are not possible, some schools have decided to do “virtual” meets, in which the athletes swim at their home pools for time and then are scored based on the times reported to each other.

Others, including Tyrone, have held their meets in person, except without spectators and a mask requirement for everyone on the pool deck including all athletes, coaches, and officials.

The first virtual swim meet of Tyrone’s season will take place tonight at Tyrone’s pool and at Marion Center’s pool.

“I think [virtual meets] are not a bad idea, and I can understand how it would be useful to be able to do those kinds of meets, but I also think that because swimming is a low contact sport, there is a less likely chance of spreading [the virus] at a swim meet compared to a basketball game or wrestling match,” said Tyrone junior swimmer Ellie Oakes. “If those sports can continue with in-person games with precautions, I don’t see why virtual swim meets are necessary.”

In any sport, participants who have the virus or have come in close contact with anyone who tested positive are not allowed to take part in the game or match and must quarantine for 10 to 14 days before returning to practice or competition.

This has led to the postponement of several games this season, including boys and girls basketball games against Philipsburg this week.

The number of spectators allowed at an event depends on where the event is held. As of right now, at Tyrone home events, the basketball players and wrestlers are allowed two tickets for all home events. Swim meets are closed to all spectators.

Ticket availability for away events is up to the host school, but so far no schools that Tyrone has played have been allowing admission of visiting fans.

PIAA has not finalized plans for the postseason as far as mask requirements or even the number of schools that might qualify for the postseason. PIAA expects to reduce the number of qualifiers for basketball, swim, and wrestling by the end of the winter season.

However, despite all the inconveniences and compromises, the athletes and coaches are mostly just thankful that they have been able to compete this season.

“There was a time when we did not think we would be able to participate in the winter season, so we are grateful to have the opportunity to participate despite all of the restrictions,” said Anderson.