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PIAA needs to ensure safety of athletes, fair play with unified mask-wearing rule

Admittedly, given the spike of COVID-19 cases and deaths locally in December and January, we weren’t sure we’d get this far, but we have arrived at the time of year when the winter sports postseason begins for the area’s high school athletes.

That means instead of just playing local teams or those within a school’s respective league or conference, our local athletes will compete against teams and athletes from across the district and state in the coming weeks.

In and of itself, the travel of high school teams during the playoffs to more places brings a relatively-small risk with it, one the teams must be willing to accept if they are to compete for district, regional and state championships.

But one area in which the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association could help ensure things are as safe as possible is by adopting a simple, temporary rule for this season’s playoffs — make all athletes wear a mask while competing, unless the nature of that sport makes it unsafe or impractical or the athlete can demonstrate a documented medical condition that would preclude he or she from wearing one.

Throughout the regular season, most athletes in the area have had to don a face covering while engaging in athletic endeavors. The notable exception, for what should be obivous reasons, is for swimmers. And in most cases, that was because the schools in various leagues agreed to require athletes and coaches to wear masks, in compliance with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health’s mandate. It may not have been easy or comfortable, but with everyone having to do it, it was fair.

Now that we’ve gotten to the playoffs, schools are grappling with a real problem. They can continue to require athletes wear masks to protect themselves, but put our local competitors at a disadvantage if they happen to encounter an opponent who won’t wear masks. They can allow their athletes to participate in postseason competition mask-free, but risk the potential liability if they contract COVID-19 that comes with permitting them to do so. Or they could just refuse to play against anyone who won’t wear a mask, which would mean a forfeit and an end to the season — hardly fair to kids and parents who sacrificed a lot just to get a chance to suit up this year.

This situation could be very easily solved if the PIAA made the decision for schools and mandated masks be worn for any competition that doesn’t take place in a pool, unless an athlete can prove an exemption applies.

But the PIAA has made clear it will defer to the schools (mainly those in the greater Pittsburgh region, also known as the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League or WPIAL) who openly flout the health secretary’s order under the guise of “exemptions” provided to athletes by the school, not doctors. It even specifically has stated that game officials have no authority to enforce mask wearing because, according to the PIAA’s January newsletter, “mask-wearing is not a contest rule.”

Please.

Isn’t the PIAA the very body with the authority to regulate high school sports in Pennsylvania? We understand the PIAA largely adopts the rules set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations, but this would hardly be the first time the PIAA has adjusted or added a rule just for Pennsylvania.

The PIAA needs to stop kowtowing to certain schools and districts in certain regions of the state and keep our kids from having to choose to further risk their health and their family’s health in order to compete for a championship.

Our kids have proven they can safely bowl, play basketball and even wrestle while wearing a mask. It’s time for the PIAA to do its job and ensure everyone has to play by the same rules.

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