Feelings mixed about VHSL mask mandate

The phone of James Wood boys’ basketball coach Tim Wygant had some activity on it Thursday night.

That’s because the Virginia High School League announced it will require athletes in most sports to wear masks at all times based on the recommendations of the Virginia Health Department, which is looking to control the state’s rising COVID-19 numbers. With the exception of wrestlers, swimmers, competition cheerleaders and gymnasts, any athlete involved in group training and competition — as well as those on the sidelines — must wear masks. The mandate applies to winter, fall and spring sports.

“A couple of [players] sent me text messages last night, kind of in disbelief,” said Wygant in a phone interview on Friday before the team’s practice that day. “But nobody said they weren’t going to play. Nobody said they weren’t going to try out.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but it should be doable. It’s not ideal, but none of this is. The VHSL’s job, first and foremost, is to make sure the athletes are safe. [Our players] have complied with absolutely everything that has been handed down [as far as COVID-19 mitigation guidelines], and they’ve done it with a sense of enthusiasm. From all appearances and everything’s that been communicated to me, they’ll do whatever they can do to compete.”

Earlier on Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam’s new COVID-19 restrictions included a requirement that people five years of age and older must wear face coverings in indoor settings shared with others and when outdoors within six feet of another person.

The VHSL stated that “if wearing a mask makes participation in sports difficult, it is advisable not to participate in sports at this time.”

North Carolina is another state that is requiring high school athletes to wear masks.

Basketball and indoor track & field are the only two VHSL winter sports that will require a mask. Official basketball practice for the VHSL started on Monday for basketball (first competition date, Dec. 21) and begins this upcoming Monday for the rest of the winter sports (first competition date, Dec. 28), though it remains to be seen what type of season the local schools will have.

The Frederick County and Winchester school divisions are holding offseason workouts but won’t decide until after they return from their winter breaks on Jan. 4 whether they will participate in the VHSL season. Clarke County Public Schools will hold swimming practice and basketball tryouts in smaller pods beginning on Monday, but have yet to decide on whether to have a wrestling season. Clarke County can’t compete in events of any kind prior to Jan. 8.

James Wood coordinator of student activities Craig Woshner said all the school’s athletes have been instructed to wear masks at all times. He doesn’t think it will be a major adjustment. During offseason workouts, athletes had been required to wear masks whenever they weren’t actively participating.

“Once we get back to competition, whenever that might be, that’s when the questions start to arise a little bit,” Woshner said. “We’ve seen other leagues, colleges, pros have debated whether they have to wear them during games, too. I understand the difficulty [of doing that], but at the same time I understand what we’re trying to do as a society so we can get through this.

“The way I see it, we’ll do our part, and we’ll follow the rules and expectations, and know that’s it’s just one more temporary inconvenience we have to overcome. We don’t know if we’re going to be participating in winter sports, but even if this carries over into the fall season, it’s one more aspect of this whole situation that we’re going to have to overcome. It’s been nine months [since the start of the pandemic], and you just kind of learn to roll with things and adapt, and do what you have to do to compete.”

Wygant said during offseason workouts, players have been wearing their masks and keeping socially distant on the sidelines and now they’ll just have to get used to wearing masks at all times.

In an interview after practice on Friday, Wygant said the players in the James Wood basketball program were ready to move forward with the new mandate.

“The masks fell down a little bit, but the kids were pushing them back up,” Wygant said.”All the kids said wearing masks is doable.”

In a phone interview, James Wood senior guard Ben Sites said he didn’t feel wearing a mask was hindering his ability to perform on Friday, whether the Colonels were conditioning or doing team basketball drills.

“It wasn’t much different,” Sites said. “And we had the same amount of people come [compared to before], and we had the same amount of enthusiasm while playing. It’s not ideal [wearing masks], but we’ll do whatever it takes to have a season. That’s how I feel.”

Millbrook senior guard Quinten Jones also participated in a basketball workout under the new mask mandate at school on Friday.

“[Wearing masks at all times] is definitely going to take some getting used to,” Jones said. “It was definitely different.

“I don’t think anybody likes it, or enjoys it. But at the end of the day, if we want to play, and we want to have a season, it’s something that has to be done.”

Woshner, a former distance runner at the University of Pittsburgh and James Wood’s former cross country coach, has already looked into the best types of masks for running. Woshner has researched masks based on fit, stability and breathability, and decided to order several Under Armour Sportsmasks in several sizes. If those aren’t to his liking, he has other models in mind.

“When we get out on the roads and we’re practicing, our kids like to run in groups. That includes me, because I run with them a lot of the days, too,” said Woshner, whose son Nathaniel is a junior distance runner at James Wood. “I don’t know if [masks] will impact performance, whether it’s in practice or meets. But you want a mask that’s going to minimize any negative impact you’re going to have on performance.”

Woshner said there are concerns with conditions like asthma and other health concerns that could be aggravated wearing a mask. But as the VHSL points out, those who might struggle with competing while wearing a mask probably shouldn’t participate.

There’s a lot of unknowns going forward, but masks could lead to what young athletes want the most.

“It’s hard,” Millbrook girls’ basketball coach Erick Green Sr. said. “Do we really know if the masks are going to protect the kids or not?

“But to be on the safe side, the kids just have to make an adjustment and wear the mask and do whatever it takes. If you want to play sports, a mask is a requirement. Follow the rules, wear the mask, and let’s make the best out of it. Kids are resilient. They’re going to do what’s asked of them. We as coaches, we’ll follow the rules and make it as comfortable as possible for them.”

“It’s going to be a learning curve, but this is ‘the new normal,’” Wygant said. “We had to get used to going into Target or Walmart or the grocery store with a mask on. Now we’re going to figure out how to play basketball with a mask on.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
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