The Mid-Penn Conference wants to have game referees enforce its mask policy during high school basketball and wrestling competitions this winter.
At least in the case of basketball, the PIAA says no.
Why basketball has been singled out and why the PIAA has given no clear guidelines for how school districts and teams should handle mask enforcement is causing frustration and confusion for some referees, athletic directors and leagues in the Midstate.
The PIAA has said for two months it is complying with the Pennsylvania Department of Health since the DOH released a universal mask order Nov. 17 to counter a spike in COVID-19 cases in the state. The order requires all individuals to wear a face covering in any indoor setting unless for medical reasons or certain work-related reasons, and specified: "Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings, when indoors ..."
But at the same time the state's high school sports governing body will not allow leagues to have basketball referees enforce mask policies agreed to by competing schools similar to how those same referees enforce proper game attire, such as tucked-in shirts or helmets and headgear.
And when asked what procedures athletic directors should use to address non-compliant players, coaches or teams, the PIAA has provided scant guidance and even suggested during the Jan. 27 board of directors meeting that teams finish a contest before reporting it to the offending team's AD ... and potentially the league or PIAA.
Rather than create a uniform, statewide policy requiring all school districts under its purview to comply by wearing masks during all basketball and wrestling practices and competitions — swimming is understandably exempt because of the inherent health risks of swimming with a mask, although swimmers and divers can wear masks outside the pool — the PIAA has said during Zoom meetings that school districts should interpret the order themselves, using their solicitors to make decisions on a district by district basis.
The PIAA has even advocated for having the decision to mask up or not be an individual’s own assessment. The PIAA says its reasons are medical — whether through medical exemptions or because of breathing and safety concerns during competition.
“The way the order is written is it goes all the way down to an individualized assessment, no different than the individualized assessment we have for every student-athlete that plays athletics [with preseason physicals],” PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi said during the last board of directors meeting. “That’s the order that was written. That was written by the Department of Health, and we’re trying to follow it.”
The DOH, meanwhile, has said basketball and wrestling practices and competitions are not exempt from mask-wearing orders. Individual athletes with specified medical conditions, such as asthma or other breathing-related problems, qualify per the order for the mask exemption.
“In terms of some other sports, and I know that the Mid-Penn has a requirement for masking, students have to wear masks,” DOH Communications Director April Hutcheson said, “the masking rule doesn’t exempt athletics.”
The masking order’s exemptions are meant for “locations like grocery stores,” Hutcheson said, not sports.
The DOH has no penalties in place for any schools or teams that do not follow the order. Neither do the Mid-Penn or PIAA.
Pennsylvania has seen 22,101 deaths and 856,986 infections as of Thursday's DOH report since the pandemic began a year ago. High school student-athletes are equally at risk of contracting COVID-19, the CDC and DOH say, although the risk of serious infection is lower in teens than older populations.
But the DOH is equally concerned about the possible spread of the coronavirus and the impact that spread can have on the community, health organizations and those older populations.
“We have to take it seriously,” Hutcheson said. “There is a balance. We want these kids to have as much of a sense [of normal] as possible.”
Hutcheson told The Sentinel local governments and counties cannot have mask orders less restrictive than the one the state currently has in place. The same applies for school districts.
Yet the PIAA’s stance — not requiring a statewide mask policy while claiming it is following the Department of Health’s orders — is in conflict with the DOH’s assessment.
The PIAA’s reluctance to order a statewide mask policy and its insistence that game managers and athletic directors manage the mask policy, not referees, puts the Mid-Penn in a bind as it tries to enforce a league-wide policy while also looking ahead to potential looming problems once the postseason begins in March.
"We either believe the medical professionals and require athletes to wear masks or we ignore the medical professionals," Mechanicsburg superintendent Mark Leidy said. "[Mechanicsburg Area School District] and the Mid-Penn has chosen to follow the medical professionals lead in this unknown territory. I would assume leadership from the PIAA will consult with their medical professionals and do the right thing in state sponsored tournaments coming soon."
The Mid-Penn first implemented a mask policy in early December, following in the footsteps of the Lancaster-Lebanon, York-Adams and Berks leagues in the area. Shippensburg AD and Mid-Penn president Mike Montedero said the Mid-Penn did so in order to comply with the Department of Health and to put all teams on equal footing. It also made scheduling non-conference games with other leagues featuring mask policies easier to manage.
The leagues are not concerned with every time a mask slips below the nose or mouth for a moment during competition and the player adjusts it back to its proper spot in a reasonable time. The concern is those that wear their masks improperly for long stretches or deliberately wear it improperly.
The Mid-Penn did not originally intend to have officials enforce proper mask wearing, Montedero said. The plan was to have athletic directors or game managers enforce the mask policy.
But early in January, a week before the winter season was set to start, Mid-Penn basketball referee assignor Donnie Eppley said he had a conversation with Central Pennsylvania Basketball Officials Association president Chris Fultz and District 3 basketball interpreter Craig Bradley.
The trio of men then came up with an idea they believe allows for referees to regulate proper mask use in games.
Rule 2-3 in the National Federation of State High School Associations Basketball Rulebook, under Section 3, provides authority for officials to make decisions on situations not covered by the rulebook.
“The referee shall make decisions on any points not specifically covered in the rules,” Section 3 says.
Eppley said he sees mask-wearing as a uniform issue. Officials are responsible during competitions for enforcing proper uniforms — anything from correct colors for undershirts to uniforms being tucked in. To Eppley, proper mask wearing — not around the chin or neck, but covering the mouth and nose — is akin to wearing a uniform correctly.
The NFHS and PIAA do not have clearly defined rules regarding proper mask wearing, hence where NFHS Rule 2-3, Section 3 comes in.
“I thought it was so easy for the officials to just stop the game, tell the person to put the mask on properly,” Eppley said.
Montedero and other athletic directors who spoke to The Sentinel supported the idea because they said it took the onus off ADs or their game managers, parties that may be biased toward the home team when making a decision to confront a player or team, pause a game or ultimately shut it down.
But within a day, Montedero and Eppley said, the PIAA sent a letter to the conference stating it could not do so. Neither Montedero nor Eppley would comment about how the PIAA was notified and did not speculate why the PIAA intervened.
Adding to the confusion is that the PIAA’s letter mentioned only basketball. A January wrestling bulletin even stated: “Wrestling officials’ jurisdiction in regards to mask wearing is only during wrestling. The mask will be treated identically to a head gear for purposes of stopping the bout.”
That bulletin also said officials don’t have jurisdiction over “whether entire teams and/or individuals are to be wearing masks.”
But that’s exactly the type of language Montedero and others want for basketball, he said. Montedero said he does not understand why there are different instructions for basketball and wrestling. He said he has seen wrestling officials consistently enforcing proper mask etiquette during bouts, pausing competition at appropriate times to have wrestlers adjust their masks.
“I think if the [basketball] officials were given the power to enforce the mask rule, I don’t think there would be an issue,” Eppley said.
Leidy said he agrees, equating masks as a health and safety precaution similar to how football helmets are needed to keep players more safe from head injuries.
"If we listen to the advice from our medical professionals, the rules around mask wearing need to be consistent for everyone," he said. "Said another way, the mask expectation needs to be the equivalent of other equipment expectations such as wearing a helmet."
PIAA associate executive director Melissa Mertz, in an email to The Sentinel, shared what she said was part of the language they sent to the Mid-Penn to justify the intervention for basketball.
“The duty to have students legally equipped is the duty of the coach and the school,” Mertz said.
Mertz said the PIAA’s reasoning is that it would be too confusing for officials to be mask policy enforcers during contests because they are not made aware of which players do and do not have medical exemptions from wearing masks or medical conditions that might force them to periodically remove their masks to breathe easier.
Contradicting the DOH
Mertz went on to say in the same email: “Additionally, a league or conference cannot enforce a mask policy that violates the Secretary of Health’s order.”
But how the Mid-Penn is in violation of the Department of Health’s order, as Mertz suggested, is unclear.
High school athletics, including practices and competitions, are covered by Gov. Tom Wolf’s order requiring universal face coverings issued Nov. 17.
“Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings, when indoors and where another person or persons who are not members of the individual's household are present in the same space, irrespective of physical distance,” the Department of Health’s FAQ for the order says. “This includes while actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, etc.”
When the order was announced, most schools in Cumberland County and elsewhere in the Mid-Penn followed the requirements in short order. Many school districts began requiring all winter teams — few fall teams were still competing at that point — to begin practicing with masks on.
On Dec. 9, the school districts that make up the Mid-Penn agreed to a universal mask policy. The policy requires all officials, coaches, athletes, fans and event staff to wear a mask at all times. The only exceptions are athletes with a signed doctor’s note indicating a medical exemption and swimmers in the pool (immediately after exiting the pool, a mask is required).
All four major District 3 leagues — the Mid-Penn, Lancaster-Lebanon League, Berks County Interscholastic Athletic Association and York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association — implemented similar policies this season.
According to Hutcheson, the Mid-Penn is not in violation of the mask order. While the Mid-Penn is not a county, local government or school district, it is a collection of school districts. And that consortium agreed in unison on the same policy, which, according to Hutcheson, would be in keeping with the DOH order.
“The counties and local governments can have a masking order that can be more restrictive, but it can’t be less restrictive,” she said.
When asked to explain why the PIAA believes the Mid-Penn is violating the DOH order, Mertz did not specify, saying only: “The player is permitted to remove their mask during play if the mask causes a medical condition, including respiratory issues that impede breathing.
"That language is direct from the order. The officials are not there to be making medical determinations on whether or not a student can or cannot breathe appropriately during a contest.”
“The only way [the Mid-Penn] would be in violation of DOH order, of the masking order, is if they issued an order in which they said you didn’t have to wear a mask to participate,” Hutcheson said when asked how the Mid-Penn might be in violation of the order.
PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said in December it was up to member schools to determine on their own, with the help of their solicitors, how to comply. That has led to inconsistencies across the state, with some teams and leagues, such as the majority of those in District 3, enforcing mandatory mask wearing, while others do not.
Lombardi and the PIAA have said since the order was issued, and repeated again Jan. 27, that they are adhering to it while also claiming it is an individual or school-based decision.
“I think if you read the Q&A under Section 3, and it says that if wearing a mask exacerbates an existing condition or another one, a mask does not have to be worn,” Lombardi said. “It’s not my language, it’s theirs. If they’re giving you a different interpretation of what’s in the language, then they need to clarify it for everyone.”
But that directly contradicts the DOH.
“The PIAA is there to protect student-athletes, and the best way to protect student-athletes in the pursuit of sport is to make sure they are wearing masks and following guidelines set forth by the Department of Health,” Hutcheson said.
What happened at Carlisle
Montedero, Mechanicsburg AD Seth Pehanich and Carlisle AD George Null said they will not allow their teams to play an opponent with one or more athletes who have medical mask exemptions.
Per the Mid-Penn policy established in December, all Mid-Penn teams are required to tell their opponent no later than 24 hours before a competition if they have a medically excused mask-exempt athlete. Each team knows ahead of time if they will face someone without a mask, although Montedero said most schools aren’t playing teams with any athletes that have the exemption. Some have agreed to play teams if the athlete in question does not compete and remains on the bench, including Shippensburg.
There have been a handful of reported conflicts across the state, including one in Carlisle.
On Jan. 15, Carlisle’s boys basketball team hosted its first game of the year against visiting Mid-Penn Commonwealth foe Altoona. Video from Carlisle’s livestream of the game, which is still viewable on YouTube, as well as Sentinel photos, show multiple Altoona players with masks around their chin or neck for long stretches of play and rest. Periodically the players wore their masks or gators properly, but that was not the case for the majority of the game for at least a handful of Mountain Lion players.
Altoona’s athletic director, Phil Riccio, disputed in an Altoona Mirror story that weekend that his players played without masks, saying: “The picture of those kids are kids coming off the court with a mask on playing for however many minutes, coming to the bench and taking their mask off to catch their breath.”
Null confirmed with The Sentinel that Altoona officials did not indicate prior to the game that any of their players were medically exempt from wearing masks. A handful of masks were provided to JV Altoona players who had trouble with their masks staying up properly during the JV game that night, Null said.
Null said he told referees after the third quarter that Altoona players were running on the court without masks. Null also said he saw Altoona’s coach without a mask on properly at times, and he talked to Riccio after the game.
Riccio did not respond to multiple emails from The Sentinel seeking comment.
With the PIAA negating the game referees' power to enforce the mask policy, that left the decision to Null.
In the end, Null said he didn't pause or call off the game at any point, with one of the factors being that Altoona drove more than two hours for the game.
There have been some mask-related issues at schools around Cumberland County, as well as at the youth levels. There have also been larger issues elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
The Bethlehem School Board recently suspended the Liberty High School boys basketball team three days without practice or competition for its players not properly wearing masks during a game against Northampton. And out west, Shady Side Academy's girls team walked out of a game against Brentwood because Brentwood players weren't wearing their masks properly.
None of those decisions could be enforced by referees.
One of the reasons Mertz listed for why referees cannot enforce mask wearing is because of privacy issues.
“The officials and the league do not have individual athlete information (medical/mental/emotional) and therefore should not be the entity to make determinations if an athlete(s) meets Section 3 [of the DOH order] or has difficulty breathing while wearing a mask,” she said.
“Further, it puts officials in an extremely difficult situation to be the 'mask police' without knowing or being able to inquire (according to the order) if the student has a medical condition and needs to remove a mask during the contest or not wear one at all.”
But Montedero said he disagrees.
The Altoona situation wasn’t a case of medical exemptions, it was a case of not adhering to conference policy, made clear because athletes had masks on but not properly. Null said Carlisle was not given notice any of the players were medically exempt 24 hours prior to tipoff, as the conference’s rules this season require.
Montedero said the ADs receive the information prior to the game and have “made those decisions” on who has a mask or not because of the Mid-Penn’s 24-hour notice requirement this season.
A tough spot for ADs
The three ADs who spoke to The Sentinel — Montedero, Null and Pehanich — cited two main problems with the PIAA’s determination.
First, they said it can be difficult for an athletic director or game managers to police masks when they may also have other obligations during a game — helping an injured athlete, handling an emergency or phone call away from the competition or managing more than one event within the building.
Conducting livestreams of games this year also takes up time, especially on nights when the livestream doesn’t run smoothly, Pehanich said.
There’s also the fact that game managers, the ADs felt, may not be comfortable or best suited to make a difficult decision to pause or stop a game because of a consistent violation of the mask policy by one or both teams.
“What happens if I have a swim meet, a wrestling match and a basketball game all at the same time?” Null asked. “You’re gonna have a faculty manager go out there and stop the game?”
Each night is different. Sometimes, an athletic director has just one event to manage, the livestream camera is operating without issue and nobody calls with an emergency. But other nights, that’s not the case.
“It’s easy when your night’s going slow and you can pay attention to the game,” Pehanich said.
Second, ADs fear the impression of bias in a game, or worse, an AD or game manager actually stopping a game with their team trailing in order to avoid a loss.
The ADs and Eppley all said having neutral referees enforce mask policies for both teams erases real or perceived bias.
“If I’m down 20, if my best player’s hurt tonight, if my players don’t wear their mask correctly,” it could be a loophole, Eppley said.
“Honestly, from my standpoint, I totally understand the PIAA stance,” Pehanich said. “I also get, it’s a third party with the PIAA officials, would that be something people would consider unbiased and part of the uniform?”
Lombardi disputed those concerns during the latest board meeting.
“Boy, that’s a stretch,” he said during the media session. “I’m sorry, I’m not buying that one. And whoever’s telling you that is only trying to abdicate their responsibility as an administrator. It’s very simple — someone’s trying to push that on someone else to make a decision, and they’re not covered by rule or by policy to follow that. It’s up to game management.”
Since the Altoona game, Null said he’s made an extra effort to speak with his teams about proper mask etiquette and is being more assertive with incoming teams.
One of the first things he said he tells teams before a game is: “It’s not the title I want, but I’m the mask police tonight.”
It’s a similar approach for Montedero and Pehanich. Null and Pehanich said it takes a “team effort” to make sure teams follow the rules. That means coaches enforcing the policy in practice so players acclimate to the masks; consistent messaging from coaches, ADs, parents, teachers and community members; and constant reinforcement of the policies, especially for athletes who are reluctant to adopt proper mask wearing.
Having officials in on the messaging would further reinforce it, they said.
“Your official controls your game, your coach controls playing time. If the official starts to do it” coaches would be more adamant with their players during games, Null said.
Would an AD call a game?
Null, Pehanich and Montedero hope they or their game managers are not forced this season to stop a game at any point because of repeat mask violations.
Montedero said his Mid-Penn Colonial Division colleagues are on the same page. Pehanich said the same of fellow Keystone Division ADs.
But the Altoona-Carlisle game stands as an example of what can happen if an AD speaks with a team but is ignored. Null said he’s since gotten more “proactive” with teams, and The Sentinel is unaware of any further issues involving Altoona or other teams.
Montedero, Null and Pehanich said there have been one-off incidents that have been addressed quickly.
At the recreational level, Eppley said he knows of one incident on a recent weekend when officials walked out of the gym after the first quarter because an entire team played without masks. Officials were told prior to accepting the game assignment that both teams would be wearing masks, only to find out otherwise after arriving.
“The officials, they officiated the first quarter, spoke to game management and said, ‘Hey, we’re out of here,’” Eppley said.
But so far, no Midstate game manager has felt the need to suspend play in the middle of a game due to masks this season.
Could that change?
“We would be willing to do it depending on how severe the situation was,” Montedero said. “But honestly, most of our games are division games … our division is so good at, the Colonial Division is just so good with the athletic directors, the coaches.”
“I almost view it likely baseball, three strikes,” said Pehanich, who added he’s had conversations with the conference. “I don’t think it’s gonna get to that point.”
Pehanich said it could be more difficult for game managers to put their foot down.
“Yep, that is something that as ADs, and myself specifically — there are certain personalities as a team manager you have to have,” he said.
However, Lombardi suggested Jan. 27 he does not want athletic directors to halt a game because of masks, instead saying the teams should finish out the game before the game manager brings it to the attention of the AD whose team violated the agreed-upon policies.
“I don’t know of any athletic director who would end a contest because of that,” Lombardi said. “But what they should do is finish the contest and then report to either the local school, or if they have a league or conference, and say, ‘Look, here’s what happened last night. We had an agreement that this is what we're gonna do before the game, and this is what happened. We need to address this going forward.’”
When pressed repeatedly about that statement, whether it was fair or safe for the aggrieved school and removed the teeth from the Mid-Penn’s policy or others like it, Lombardi said repeatedly this came from the DOH policy and schools should set the guidelines prior to the game, even though in the Mid-Penn’s case that’s already agreed to prior to competition because of the league’s policy.
When asked what recourse that leaves game managers or ADs, Lombardi said: “I don’t know how to answer your question because you got me — the dog chasing its tail.”
No solution in sight
That adds to the frustrations the ADs and officials that spoke to The Sentinel share.
At the start of the PIAA's last board meeting, recently elected District 2 officials representative Jim Elliott, who will take over the post this summer, pressed the PIAA and assistant executive director Patrick Gebhart, who oversees officiating, about the lack of clarity.
Elliott suggested, as has Eppley and the Mid-Penn officials leadership, to enforce masks as they would uniform violations. Elliott said he’s seen multiple games he’s officiated or watched on live-streams where multiple people were improperly wearing masks and game management did not intervene.
“There’s no procedure whatsoever for game management to enforce it,” he said. “Do they stop the game? Do they constantly tell the coach? Do they have the authority to sit a kid on the bench? Do they pause the game? What are the guidelines for game management? Because I’ve talked to game management, and they’re not aware of the guidelines.”
Elliott also questioned what message the PIAA is sending to athletes and communities “that we are allowing obvious violations of the mask and putting people’s safety at risk by allowing them to wear masks below the chin.”
PIAA president Frank Majikes and Gebhart only said it is not an official’s job to enforce masks, and Gebhart ended the conversation by saying he was “reluctant” to respond further to Elliott, who is suing the PIAA for retaliatory measures taken against him and his siblings.
In the lawsuit filed in 2019, Elliott claims William Schoen denied his siblings playoff assignments in response to Dave Elliott running for election in 2016 against Schoen.
The PIAA said during its media session it could not provide much comment because the case is still pending litigation.
Elliott is not alone. Montedero, Null and others expressed frustration that the PIAA’s verdict creates issues for athletic directors and does not go far enough to provide any consistent guidance.
There are also concerns as to how this will play out come the postseason.
The Mid-Penn is relatively isolated right now from non-mask-wearing teams, considering nearly all out-of-conference games this season are against District 3 opponents playing under similar league policies. But, barring a PIAA order in the next few weeks, Mid-Penn teams could find themselves stuck between playing unmasked teams or forfeiting a playoff basketball game or wrestling match because their school board or superintendent will not allow them to play against such teams.
“It’s a conversation that is starting here in our district, we have not come to a final decision on that,” said Pehanich, whose girls basketball team has the potential to make the state playoffs this year.
While nearly all District 3 teams require masks because of league rules, that is not the case everywhere.
Some of the leagues in Pennsylvania that require masks include the Tri-Valley League, the Pennsylvania Heartland Athletic Conference, the Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, whose territory covers much of the Lehigh Valley, as well as most of Philadelphia-based leagues, including the Philadelphia Public League and Philadelphia Catholic League.
The WPIAL, located in the Pittsburgh area and the largest single league in Pennsylvania, District 2 and the Erie County area are among the leagues and regions that aren't requiring masks during all competitions, despite the DOH order, instead leaving it up to school districts to decide for themselves.
Null said he may consider asking parents to sign waivers allowing their kids to compete against unmasked opponents. Carlisle’s most likely athletes to make state postseason competition are wrestlers.
Nothing is certain.
The PIAA was asked on a few occasions Wednesday if it will implement a statewide mask policy for the postseason or if it is having those discussions. Lombardi was also asked if there’s been any discussion about what would happen if a masked team refuses to play an unmasked team in the postseason. He said the PIAA is discussion options but was not clear on if the association is seriously considering a uniform playoff mask policy.
“We’re following the order, and that’s where we are today,” Lombardi said. “We will not violate the order. And we’re not going to violate the order as we go forward.”
“This is no different from the fall," Montedero said. "It’s been fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants all year."
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Pennsylvania had seen een 450 deaths and 14,742 infections as of Thursday. Those numbers were from Cumberland County's date and has since been corrected to show statewide numbers.
Email Jake Adams at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520