Local high school sports coaches expressed uncertainty and frustration Thursday in the wake of Illinois High School Association officials adjusting “Return To Play” Phase 4 guidelines.
When can athletes wear masks? When are they allowed not to wear a mask? How many people can gather in a group setting at one time? Can basketball teams actually scrimmage against one another, as was stated in the guidelines that were in place by the time coaches and athletes woke up on Thursday?
All valid questions. All with uncertain answers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Less than a week after the IHSA released Phase 4 guidelines, in conjunction with directives issued from the Illinois Department of Public Health, organization officials published significant rules amendments.
“We all understand that the safety of the kids comes first,” Rantoul boys’ basketball coach Ryan Parker said. “Just disappointing for the kids, especially seniors who have really been working hard, that they have been put into this predicament and waiting game.”
The first of two emails sent Thursday from IHSA executive director Craig Anderson to IHSA member schools outlined three changes to Phase 4, based on “very important directives from the IDPH and the Governor’s office” pertaining to the pandemic.
The alterations, Anderson said in the email, “create an alignment with the ISBE (Illinois State Board of Education) and the recent concerns we have heard from some of our school administrators” since the IDPH approved Phase 4 last Friday. Member schools were able to implement Phase 4 in their own activities as soon as last Sunday.
The three changes are written as such:
- “There cannot be any contact drills/physical contact among athletes”;
- “All persons must always wear masks (we are working to determine if this includes outside while social distancing)”;
“There must be a strict 50-person limit to all indoor activities, and that would include any spectators (people in those groups should also socially distance).”
Later Thursday, Anderson sent a follow-up email to IHSA member schools in which he clarified the previous message’s content.
The two biggest clarifications read as follows:
- “We have received confirmation through ISBE that the Governor’s office has approved the following: Students participating in physical activity outside while social distancing are NOT required to wear a mask”;
- “The changes will eliminate scrimmages in sports that require physical contact (basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, water polo and wrestling).”
Another clarification in that email notes IDPH approval of Thursday’s Phase 4 changes is “a formality as we have been directed by IDPH to implement these changes.”
The IHSA’s initial Phase 4 document indicated that coaches and volunteers must wear masks, while athletes “should be encouraged to wear a mask if feasible for the sport.” That same document included a line that “group sizes should be limited to 50 total participants, coaches and referees (i.e. excludes spectators).”
“The changes and adjustments to Phase 4 Return To Play guidelines could come periodically in the coming weeks as the testing numbers fluctuate,” Anderson said in his first email. “While these changes to our guidance document have been shared with IDPH, we do not have our document approved. When we do have it approved with these changes, we will pass along an updated copy.”
Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer, also the Warriors’ girls’ basketball coach and softball coach, took a neutral approach to this latest guidelines update by saying, “we will just have to adjust and be flexible as needed.”
“We had already decided weeks ago that we were not going to scrimmage any other schools in any sports,” Bauer added. “We will continue to concentrate on individual workouts and strength and conditioning.”
Oakwood girls’ basketball coach Stephanie Marsh was preparing for the Comets’ first open gym session Thursday when she learned about the Phase 4 changes. Those altered plans Marsh had to have the Comets scrimmage against each other.
“I had all these things scheduled, and then they released those new guidelines about an hour before we started,” Marsh said. “The girls were having to wear masks the entire time. That limited us, obviously, in what we wanted to do, but we at least got some ball-handling drills in.”
Multiple other area coaches pointed to athletes required to wear masks as a significant hindrance.
All made their comments before Anderson’s second email addressed athletes not needing to wear a mask outdoors as long as they are socially distanced.
“I will not subject any of my athletes to this treatment,” Arcola girls’ basketball coach Kevin Hohlbauch said. “Wearing a mask during a workout is not healthy. I will instruct my girls to continue to work out on their own.”
Neither Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin cross-country coach Todd Orvis nor Paxton-Buckley-Loda football coach Josh Pritchard explicitly said they wouldn’t have their athletes practice or compete in masks, but both indicated they see an issue with the idea given their respective sports’ physical demands.
“As a runner, I cannot imagine wearing a mask while trying to run,” Orvis said. “Obviously, taking in oxygen is critical to distance running and, although I haven’t tried it, I would think that wearing a mask while running would be challenging.”
“I’ll never argue against the need for masks if I cannot social distance,” Pritchard added. “However … I can’t honestly look at my kids and tell them to go all out in 90-degree heat, not offer them water and deal with wearing a mask that does restrict the amount of oxygen that can come in at one time.”
Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond cross-country coach Lyle Dorjahn said he won’t even meet with his runners “until we get this figured out,” referring to the pandemic.
“I’ve given our cross-country group workouts to do themselves and with teammates,” Dorjahn said. “I fear for the personal well-being of my runners if forced to wear masks while running in this summer heat.”
Pritchard, the reigning News-Gazette All-Area football Coach of the Year after guiding PBL to the Class 3A state quarterfinals last November, said his team now will use the time these particular IHSA guidelines are in place to “do much more thorough walk-through and teaching time.”
“We can install our offense and defenses at a slower pace but still get accomplished what we need,” Pritchard said. “In the end, I know our coaching staff, along with the district, is going to do the most beneficial things for the players.”