Mask wearing in Pennsylvania high school sports becomes a hot-button issue for PIAA

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Dallastown vs South Western during boys' basketball action at Dallastown Area High School in York Township, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Dallastown would win the game 51-43. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Wearing masks during Pennsylvania high school athletic events remains a hot-button issue in the state as administrators navigate the winter sports season during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sports official and newly elected District 2 Officials Representative James Elliott addressed the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association at its Board of Directors meeting Wednesday and inquired about mask wearing, who is responsible for enforcing Gov. Tom Wolf's mandate and offered a suggestion that game officials treat adherence like they would the uniform policy.

"Now that we are inside with several sports, there is a concern about mask wearing," Elliott said. "Several schools around the state are using exceptions for mask wearing. In our league and many across the state, masks are required. How do we approach mask enforcement? I was informed by my district interpreter that the PIAA has instructed him that officials are to ignore obvious violations of the state mask mandate. I didn't think that it was possible for the PIAA to ask to ignore state mandates.

"I suggested that we treat masks the same way we do untucked shirts. That is, we tell the player a couple of times to tuck it in or he is going to be sitting on the bench. That usually alleviates the problem. I was told not to do that and that we don't have any enforcement and that it is game management."

PIAA assistant executive director Pat Gebhart referred to a recent basketball bulletin that gave guidance to officials to not enforce the mandate because they don't have the authority to do so from the board. Robert Lombardi, the PIAA executive director, stated the responsibility falls upon game managers and emphasized that the organization is following the order that includes exceptions for extreme circumstances on an individual basis.

"The Board of Directors did not make any rule modifications," Gebhart said. "Also, our Return to Competition guidelines also do not give the officials the authority to do so. They are directed, if they have any issue with the way the masks are being worn, to talk to the game managers."

Elliott cited games he's seen live streamed and games he has refereed where players are wearing masks below their chin and that game management doesn't want to be involved. He asked what officials are to do after accepting the game with the understanding the state mandate would be followed? He also said there is no procedure or guidelines in place to enforce the rule.

Lombardi emphasized that the responsibility falls upon the game managers and hoped situations could be addressed before a contest starts to avoid drastic actions.

"Our position, right now, our policy mirrors the order from the administration and the Department of Health," Lombardi said. "Everybody wears a mask, except those individuals that claim an exception under Section 3 of the order. That is an individualized assessment and done at each individual school.

"What has us concerned is some places are saying we are doing this and some are doing that. That does not follow the order. The order says masks will be worn. We support that. We also support the ability of an individual student to have an assessment to claim an exception for waiver under Section 3 of the order."

As the discussion continued, Lombardi also said, as the season moves toward the postseason, that the mask wearing situation will continue to be looked at more closely. There are concerns about deciding to forfeit contests when there is not an agreed upon decision regarding mask wearing, especially in playoff games.

Schools competing in the Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association are required to wear masks for all events. The York-Adams League has a similar rule.