District to re-evaluate hoops mask policy for playoffs

The Fighting Highlanders basketball teams compete at the 6A level.

Photo via Google Images

The Fighting Highlanders basketball teams compete at the 6A level.

Izzy Swanson, Colton Brain, and Mason Hurley

For the upcoming WPIAL playoffs, the district will re-evaluate its policy of having the boys and girls basketball teams play only against other schools whose players also wear masks during games, Athletic Coordinator John Saras said.

The Baldwin policy requiring Highlander winter athletes to wear masks during games — and to only play teams that also wear masks — has had its critics. An online petition created by boys basketball parents calls for either letting Baldwin players compete without masks, or revoking the policy of playing only schools that also require masks. That petition has been signed by more than 100 people.

The district responded with a memo from Supt. Dr. Randal Lutz and Saras. In an interview, Saras stressed that the district’s policy would not be altered during the regular season, but administrators are focused on finding a way for the basketball teams to compete in the playoffs.

“The memo said that the stance would not be changing when it comes to the regular season. We will continue to re-evaluate and reassess as we get closer to the playoffs. Dr. Lutz has made it clear that we want participation to happen,” Saras said.

Lutz said in the memo that the district had to sign a pandemic-related state form called an attestation, which outlined the health practices that had to be followed for the winter sports season to happen.

“These rules – mandated by both the Department of Education and the Department of Health — specify the use of masks during practices and competition,” Lutz said. 

“If we compete against teams who follow a more lax policy, any spread of COVID-19 among our athletes could jeopardize our entire season. Specifically, if one of our athletes tests positive for COVID-19 and contact tracing cannot guarantee a contained response, our entire program would need to shut down for at least two weeks,” Lutz said.

That very scenario almost happened this season, he said.

“The irony to the criticism over the masking policy is that this very stance saved the season from being postponed or having games canceled a few weeks back, when one of the Baldwin players tested positive for the virus,” Lutz said. “Since the teammates were wearing masks in games and in practice, we did not have to quarantine players and the season continued without interruption. Otherwise, we would have been closed down for two weeks.”

While wearing a mask while playing is not ideal, the current situation is better than what students faced last spring, at the start of the pandemic, he said. 

“Let’s rewind the calendar and ask any senior from the Class of 2020 if they would have been willing to wear a mask in order to save their spring season or come back to school,” Lutz said. “What do we think their answer would have been?“

An even bigger issue, Lutz said, is the impact that potential COVID-19 positive cases, close contacts and quarantines could have on the district’s ability to keep schools open. 

“Our number one area of focus has been and will continue to be to get all children who want to be in person back into school — and be able to keep them there.  While I cannot speak to how and why other schools have decided that masks are not important during play to keep themselves and others safe, I am not willing to take the risk that athletics and non-mask wearing may delay children getting back — and staying back — in school.  

We want to play. We want to maximize the experience — whether it’s practice, whether it’s competition — but challenges have been dealt all over the board.”

— John Saras

The online petition said parents were concerned that the regular season could be shortened due to Baldwin not playing teams without masks, and they did not want the team to have to forfeit a playoff game if Baldwin is matched up against a team that does not wear masks. 

“We do not want to make this a `scientific’ discussion as to the efficacy of wearing masks versus not wearing masks while involved in athletic events, but we are open to discussions about alternative methods of virus mitigation that do not keep our children off the basketball court this winter and limit their opportunity to play,” the petition said.

Saras acknowledged that the basketball teams likely will play fewer than the standard 22 games in the regular season. But he said one big factor in that is the three-week statewide winter sports shutdown in late December and early January.

“The shutdown condensed the seasons down to everything after Jan. 5 with the exception of one girls basketball game,” Saras said. “We want to play. We want to maximize the experience — whether it’s practice, whether it’s competition — but challenges have been dealt all over the board,” Saras said.

The district’s goal is for the boys and girls teams to play 20 games this year, Saras said. The boys currently have played 14, which is tied for the highest number of games played in WPIAL 6A, he said.

The girls team currently has played nine games, which Saras said is slightly below the WPIAL 6A average.

“However, with the girls basketball team, we have had multiple cancellations in the past week from other schools,” Saras said.

Jen Cochran, who is the mother of basketball player Chad Cochran and who signed the petition, said she understands that the policy is aimed at keeping players safe. But how the policy is playing out on the court limits its effectiveness.

“I think that forcing the kids to wear masks is definitely a way to keep them protected,” Jen Cochran said. “However, most if not every player does not wear them correctly. In their defense, it’s hard to keep them on when you’re trying to have a normal, everyday conversation, let alone while they’re trying to play basketball. I could imagine how difficult it would be for each player.” 

Many of the parents’ concerns are based on the future of the playoffs, Cochran said, and they were hoping that a re-evaluation of the policy would keep Baldwin from having to forfeit playoff games.

“I hope that they re-evaluate the situation, because we already got shut down in the beginning of the year, and we don’t want to end the season early, when we could have had a good chance in the playoffs, all because some teams don’t wear a mask,” Cochran said. 

Junior Chad Cochran, meanwhile, said that although the team views the mask mandate as necessary, it is still hard to get used to wearing the masks.

“I don’t really know the facts around it. Maybe it is necessary, but it’s pretty hard to keep it above your nose. During the games nobody can really maintain it above their nose and play at the same time,” Cochran said. 

Senior and school board student representative Connor Woods spoke on the issue at the last school board meeting, and he said both sides of the argument have valid points.

“I understand and support the administrators trying to promote a safe playing environment,” Woods said.

But Woods also said that because the masks are not always being worn correctly, the policy is less effective.

“In all of the pictures I’ve seen of the games, the masks aren’t being worn properly. So I believe parents think the rules, which could affect the team’s schedule and playoffs, are unnecessary,” Woods said.