On Monday, the Virginia High School League rescinded a mandate that required athletes to wear masks and face coverings during competition and practice for the winter sports season.
The mandate, which was announced last week, was based on recommendations by the Virginia Department of Heath and the American Academy of Pediatrics that students and coaches wear masks while participating in sports as well as in response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s updated mask mandate that requires all Virginians ages five and over to wear face coverings in indoor settings shared with others and outdoors when within six feet of another person.
After further evaluation of the Governor’s plans, VHSL executive director Dr. John W “Billy” Haun noted that Executive Order 72 does not apply for individuals exercising or using exercise equipment.
“VHSL apologizes for any confusion created by its original release,” said Haun in a statement. “We ask the public to understand that it is the first mission of VHSL to make sure that athletics are conducted in a safe and healthy environment, and it was that desire that motivated the original decision.”
Moving forward, the VHSL said masks or face coverings for players in competition are “strongly encouraged” but not required. Haun noted that each school may continue to exercise its discretion and judgment with regards to face coverings with its own athletics program.
The Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association, which, like the VHSL, last week issued a mask requirement for most winter sports competition, also is re-evaluating its decision.
“We are going to look at not requiring our winter athletes to wear masks,” VISAA Executive Director Dick Kemper said.
William Monroe girls basketball coach Jess Shifflett said her team was ready to compete with masks if the mandate had remained.
“Our program honestly tried to take our personal opinion out of the equation concerning the mandates and protocols that have been in place,” Shifflett said. “We are so thankful to get the opportunity to practice and play with full contact that we are willing to do whatever is necessary in order to continue. That includes wearing masks. We will trust the people making these decisions have our best interests at heart and we will follow the guidelines as presented to us.”
Shifflett said last week’s initial ruling wasn’t that big of a deal for her program. The Greene Dragons wore masks regularly during out-of-season conditioning and preseason practices and it has become second nature for them.
“Our team has been going above the implemented mandates since Day 1,” she said. “Our players wear their masks in practice, including in all full-court action drills and live play. We keep them socially distanced on the sideline and in line for drills with masks on. The only time we previously allowed them to let their mask down is when we were doing full-court, socially distanced spring work as directed by the initial guidelines. However, this was always optional and we have had several players opt to do so. We also give them designated ‘mask breaks’ while they are socially distanced and stationary, to the same protocols that are followed in our classrooms.”
Louisa County girls basketball coach Nick Schreck said his players have been practicing with masks on, so they will be able to adjust either way.
“I know my players and I really do not have a preference one way or another,” he said. “If wearing a mask allows us to play, then that is what we will do.”
Charlottesville boys basketball coach Mitch Minor agreed.
“I think we should do whatever it takes to keep our athletes safe,” Minor said.
Shifflett said one of the keys has been rigorous attention to detail.
“It is our believe that we would rather be overly cautious in following the protocols,” Shifflett said. “We have hand sanitizer cues built into our practices plans to ensure players are sanitizing several times throughout practice, balls are being sanitized in between drills and masks are staying on. We want to stay healthy and we want to keep playing.”
With VHSL sports set to resume next week in some areas, local teams are champing at the bit to return to action.
“We are just thankful to be given the opportunity by VHSL and our school administration to play basketball,” Schreck said.