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Practicality vs safety: Masks required for Illinois high school sports to protect from COVID

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PEORIA — Masks became part of basketball culture at the high school level in Illinois. Now the facial coverings are coming to a football game near you.

Players, coaches and officials in the Peoria area learned not all masks are the same, not all faces are the same and not all experiences are the same while trying to play amid a global pandemic.

"Playing in a mask has definitely been different," Illinois Valley Central senior guard Holt Geltmaker said. "There are really no pros to wearing a mask, but the cons are, they do make it tougher to breathe and are difficult to hold in place.

"You do not really realize when they fall down when you are playing and into a competitive game."

The high school basketball season has wrapped up, and players were clear about their dislike of mandated use of masks in competition. Meanwhile, state officials insist the masks are important to stem the spread of the coronavirus during games.

Even with the precautions, the state of Illinois has not been immune to COVID-19 outbreaks in youth sports, high schools and at the college level.

The prevailing scientific studies say the types of cloth masks worn by players and coaches do not impede breathing. What's more, when groups gather closely indoors — as they do in basketball — masks work, studies say.

Yet, there's no doubt where real-world experience leans.

"Wearing these things is really difficult," longtime high school sports basketball official Ron King said. "You can't breathe in them. You have to pull the mask off your nose. We have shields for our whistles. But you are up and down the court, no breaks for us. It's just not practical to enforce that."

Unlike high school competition, college and professional sports do not have a mandate from Illinois health officials requiring players to wear masks while on the court.

"Many professional athletes live in a 'bubble' and are tested regularly, some even daily, to ensure cases do not spread," said Jordan Abudayyeh, press secretary for the office of Gov. JB Pritzker. "College athletes also undergo rigorous testing regimens that local school districts do not have the resources to provide."

The NCAA has a detailed set of protocols and testing regimens for its high-risk sports, including testing athletes and Tier 1 personnel multiple times a week. The cost and implementation of testing with that frequency would likely be out of reach for most high schools.

Bradley basketball coach Brian Wardle can relate, though, to what high school counterparts have been dealing with mask-wearing on the court.

"All I know is this: It's hard to wear a mask while coaching," Wardle said. "Being able to breathe, pace up and down. Our players in the summertime, when our players were wearing masks in our first few workouts, they were really struggling to play. They couldn't breathe well, they got lightheaded at times.

"Fortunately it was decided they didn't have to wear them while they were playing, and that was huge, because they were really struggling with it."

The Illinois High School Association implemented "mask breaks" for its basketball games, literally a 90-second timeout for players to catch their breath.

The state's mask mandate includes spectators, officials, coaches and players at all sporting events. Players must continue to wear their masks during competition for everything other than swimming and diving.

"One year into this pandemic there are fundamental facts we have learned," Abudayyeh said. "... We know that wearing a mask and keeping distance are the best tools to bring down the spread."

Those rules won't be adjusted until the region moves from Phase 4 to complete reopening, meaning that masks will be required for upcoming spring sports like football, soccer and volleyball.

Pritzker announced Thursday a move to total reopening, or Phase 5, would occur after 50% of residents over the age of 16 are vaccinated and hospitalization and intensive-care unit usage rates stay low over a 28-day period. He announced an interim "bridge" phase that would allow greater attendance at some events.

"The only positive with masks," Eureka boys basketball coach Tim Meiss said, "is we can play."

Players have reported they feel overly fatigued after playing a game with a mask on. And others are frustrated with the mask itself: It becomes heavier for those who sweat more, and in other cases the facial coverings don't stay on one's face while running.

"To be honest, the players and coaches wear them all day at school," Tremont boys basketball coach Troy Schmidt said. "Our school has mandated wearing them properly, so it hasn't been an issue for us. Of course they slip down during activity, but the kids have been pretty conscientious about pulling them up. Communication with them has been challenging at times."

The National Federation of High Schools does not require mask-wearing for indoor sports but recommends it. As for neighboring states to Illinois, mask use is mixed. You'll notice kids playing games without masks in Kentucky. None in Indiana. None in Iowa. Michigan and Wisconsin, like Illinois, do require mask use.

IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox oversees game officials around the state. He says the basketball officials are instructed to treat mask-wearing issues during game play as a uniform violation, like an untucked jersey. Ultimately, it's on the coaches to enforce.

"We've seen photos and video of players with masks down around their chin while in action," Knox said. "That happens in the course of a game. We have not told officials to stop play when that happens. They pick times when there is a break, and they talk to the player or coach about it."

King, the referee, deals with that on the floor at game time.

"We're kind of taking the attitude that kids are wearing the mask, and things happen during play," King said. "They slip below the nose, sometimes below the chin. We're not stopping play for that. If we did that, every game would be four hours."

Abudayyeh says the use of a mask during scholastic sports, however, goes beyond being symbolic. They're important and effective, the governor's office says.

"The CDC and every national health expert agree that masking is the most important tool we have in preventing the spread of coronavirus," Abudayyeh said. "Coaches told IDPH they would implement masking if they could resume play. Masking during play is the only way to prevent spread during high-contact sports."

Officials, coaches and players have largely reached common ground.

"The officials have not enforced any sort of mask policy during our games. It is a non-issue," Washington head coach Eric Schermerhorn said. "Our school and our staff have asked our kids to be disciplined when it comes to wearing their mandatory gear."

Knox said players, coaches, officials and team staff will have to wear masks on the field and sidelines during the coming football season. The IHSA plans to expand the players' sideline box to the 10-yard lines to achieve more distancing.

There have been 34 high school sports-related outbreaks in Illinois and another 38 related to college-level games between June last year and March 9, Abudayyeh told the Journal Star. In that same time frame, Illinois youth sports (non-school) had 25 outbreaks.

Abudayyeh was not able to be specific on where sports-related outbreaks have happened in Illinois, or what schools and teams were involved.

"Those investigations take place at the local level and are reported to (Illinois Department of Public Health)," she said, "but I can confirm that all regions of the state have had sports-related outbreaks. They're not centered in one specific region."

A COVID-19 outbreak is defined as five or more cases that are linked to a common location during a 14-day period, according to the IDPH. The state agency says the linked cases also must be from different households and not already connected to other sources.

Peoria Public Schools District says all high school students attending in-person classes are tested bi-weekly for coronavirus in a surveillance testing program that includes athletes. Remote-learning students who are athletes are tested every week during their season.

The district says it has conducted more than 5,000 COVID-19 tests since in-person instruction resumed on Jan. 19. Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said three athletes have tested positive for COVID since that time. The overall positivity rate for the district is 0.39%.

No varsity boys basketball teams in the Big 12 Conference missed a game this season because of COVID, Desmoulin-Kherat said, but "several" of the league's girls teams had to quarantine. The Big 12 includes four Peoria schools, plus high schools in Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal and Danville.

"Our coaches dutifully complete a health survey and take temperature of all athletes and coaches before every practice, before every home game and before getting on a bus for a road game," Desmoulin-Kherat said. "With all of these precautions and wearing masks during basketball activities, we believe the layers of precautions have worked well."

The Dunlap school district has been transparent the last 29 weeks, distributing weekly charts showing the number of students and staff who have positive tests, the number in quarantine, and those who are excluded from in-person attendance or have returned from quarantine/isolation/exclusion in each of its schools.

Superintendent Scott Dearman says the Mid-Illini Conference school encourages testing for students who experience symptoms or think they have been exposed. The school has had one athlete test positive during the winter sports season.

As for basketball and masks?

"Our student athletes," Dearman said, "have done as well as can be expected."

As with athletes, mask-wearing during games also includes in-game officials.

"There are a lot of basketball officials who are sitting out this season because they don't want to wear masks," King said. "I'd say 10-15% of them."

King said some football officials are going to do the same for the upcoming spring season, including an entire crew that will sit out the six-week season that begins statewide March 19.

"They are not mad at anyone," King said. "They just don't want to deal with wearing these masks while working, and dealing with enforcing mask-wearing on players and coaches."

Knox acknowledged there has been a decrease in the number of officials willing to work because of mask mandates. He also said some have opted out of the football season, which might force the state to reduce football officiating crews from five to four.

"What we're missing is veteran officials," Knox said. "In some areas of the state, there are shortages, and some officials are being asked to work both the (junior varsity) and varsity games. It's the reality we're all in."

What's more, King said COVID rules have created other side effects for officials.

"You have to dress in your car. No towels, no locker room access," King said. "You work a game and either change into your clothes, sweaty and dirty, or go home in your uniform. We can't even take a shower on site.

"It's a difficult situation for everyone."

Brimfield boys basketball coach Scott Carlson said his players adjusted to wearing masks, and that when he watched game tape he saw everything being done properly.

But he also had a secret weapon.

"My wife made the team masks that are comfortable and actually stay up," Carlson said. "Some team members have bought a different brand that fits even better for them, and that's fine."

Above all, Carlson — like many involved in high school sports during the pandemic — has a goal to simply make mask-wearing a non-issue. Just another thing.

"It seems we have done pretty well reaching that goal," Carlson said, before beginning to laugh. "Of course, when we lose, we're going to use the mask as our excuse.

"Put an asterisk by that game."


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