Opinion | Maintaining or changing: looking at COVID policies in sports entering spring

In the Midwest, Illinois is the final state that has yet to call off its masking requirements in schools.  This was later changed on March 7th. However, on Feb. 4, Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grishchow declared that JB Pritzker’s emergency rules for COVID-19 in schools were “null and void.” Judge Grishchow later issued an order towards the lawsuit that was brought on by hundreds of parents and guardians. An exceeding 700 parents were represented by attorney Thomas Devore who filed the suit last year, alleging that the Pritzker’s mask order in schools denies students “due process.” 

However, the CDC website requires “universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

Additionally, ETHS sent out an email on Feb. 7 regarding Judge Grishchows decision, writing, “At ETHS we follow the science, and the CDC and IDPH are recommending masks. For the safety of everyone at ETHS, we will continue to follow the public health recommendations and wear masks to protect one another from the COVID-19 virus.”

The ETHS Safety Guidelines for athletics states that “Students that do not follow these guidelines will be removed from participation. Programs that do not follow these procedures will have their seasons suspended.”

These Safety Guidelines enforce that face masks must be worn at all times, students and coaches must remain a 6 feet distance from each other, and shared equipment must be sanitized.  

The guidelines are understandable, but as someone who plays an intense close contact sport (not associated with ETHS) I still worry about getting COVID-19. It adds another unneeded layer of anxiety for me. In my gym, where  I box, we are required to wear our masks. My coach, depending on the weather, puts up the big garage-like door so air circulates and we can take our mask down if need be. It is still difficult for me to wear my mask at times because sometimes I feel as if I am going to pass out if I don’t take off my mask for a few minutes. Taking your mask down in a gym while playing a close contact sport can be risky with getting COVID-19. As an athlete, I think that COVID-19 guidelines need to be formed in a way that allows the athletes that play an indoor sport to breathe.

Mask wearing may pose a challenge to athletes. Trouble breathing  is most likely the reason masks aren’t being worn properly. Understandable considering that breath control is important especially while playing an intense sport. 

“When we were outside during the summer and during the outdoor season last year we got to wear gator necks and we were allowed to pull our maks down when we ran. However, it was sort of a general rule that you were supposed to keep your mask up in practice or if you are not running,” sophomore track runner Elijah Horek Gualtier explains. “It is definitely difficult to wear a mask and run when you are sweaty, or if it moves around on your face while you are running and you have to get out of your normal running form and try and fix the mask.”

Additionally, masks can pose different impacts based on the sport being played. When ETHS Junior athlete Mateo Lapaglia was asked if he felt like he ever needed a breather during baseball practice and if the mask makes it uncomfortable to perform during practices, he said, “I’m fine with wearing my mask, I mean it sometimes falls down when I’m talking to people but I just pull it back up when I’m done.”

In fact, many sports have been dealing with the ETHS safety guidelines differently, since the athletic department allows for coaches to enforce non-mandated protocols on a sport by sport basis. Sports that require athletes to remain in close contact are often the target for anxiety towards COVID-19. 

As members of the wrestling team, we all realize that our sport may pose a greater risk than many others for COVID-19 exposure, considering that it involves a lot of physical contact. This means we have to be extra diligent when it comes to doing all we can to stop spread of the virus during practice,” sophomore wrestler Ali Erec Atac states.

To be extra diligent, the ETHS wrestlers have adopted a routine of sanitizing mats and equipment, staying in small practice groups, and encouraging vaccination.

“IHSA guidelines allow us to remove wrestling masks, but we do have to wear them at all other times, like when we’re doing warmups, for example. So it does make warming up a little harder, but we are still able to have relatively “normal” practices,” Atac says. “I’d say we’ve been doing a pretty good job despite being a high contact sport, since the cases have been few and far between. Whenever we’ve had the rare case, the wrestlers who were in close contact quarantined right away, too. So we’ve never had a big surge or anything that meant we had to stop practice.”

IHSA, the Illinois High School Association, has implemented each region in Illinois with “phases,” with all regions in Illinois currently in Phase 5. This means that low risk and high risk sports face no scheduling restrictions and no spectator limitations. There’s no budging this. 

Mask wearing for wrestling has been ruled by The American Academy of Pediatrics as “a choking hazard” Which, in retrospect, make’s sense. The most that can be done towards the safety of the wrestling team is to continue what is already being done. Having scheduled testing, wearing masks while not engaging in wrestling, and sanitizing all equipment used. 

We wear masks on and off the court to follow the COVID-19 guidelines. We use hand sanitizer through practice, and each of us has our own practice gear and basketballs to use. In addition, outside of basketball, we try our best to have a “bubble” and surround ourselves with the same people to limit the exposure possibilities,” senior basketball player Maya Wallace states. 

On December 16, 2021 the spread of COVID-19 at ETHS forced the school to cancel all “non-essential events, activities, and meetings.” With this followed another email that canceled “non-instructional events, such as extracurricular clubs, sports, etc.”  

A great number of people were affected by these cancellations, one being the girls basketball team. 

COVID-19 is an issue that’s bigger than basketball and needs to be taken seriously. Wearing masks has posed some difficulties, but speaking as a team, we really just want to play basketball. Playing through masks has just been another challenge we’ve faced this season, but like everything else, we don’t make excuses and we go out and play,” Wallace adds. 

The ETHS basketball team is only one of the ETHS sports that have been greatly impacted by the spread of COVID-19. Having canceled sports practices and games is not a small fret for any athlete. Especially for a senior athlete who wants and needs to play as many games as possible, getting COVID-19 can prevent that. COVID-19 can also cause an extra layer of anxiety on some athletes.The more we can lower the chances of ETHS athletes getting COVID-19 the better. 

The goal at hand is finding out how to lower the chances of athletes getting COVID-19. 

There are many things that can be implemented into the COVID-19 sport protocols some being, the enforcement of mask mandates and including a “breather break.” It is necessary to fix the current balancing act that ETHS is in. Finding a way to push COVID-19 safety and allow for sports to continue is something that will hopefully find its solution. 

Moving forward, if we implement these COVID-19 protocols to benefit athletes, we can make ETHS a safer place to watch and play sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.