Editor’s note: Photos used in this story show players wearing masks correctly.
The issue became apparent on the first night of the winter season, the state’s first athletic competition in nearly four months.
The state’s high school sports administrators — from the top at the CIAC, to league commissioners all the way down to assistant coaches — had been well-versed in the new protocols for wearing masks during competition. Players and coaches spent their two weeks of conditioning getting used to it.
But then came the actual competition and the increased attention from outsiders who followed the games on live streams and on TV, or saw photos in local media outlets.
While there was plenty of evidence showing teams adhering to wearing masks, there was just enough circumstantial evidence to show others weren’t consistently — or at least were caught in a moment where a player’s mask had slipped below the nose or completely off their face.
“Every game covered by media you can see whether teams are doing it correctly,” said Al Carbone, the commissioner of the Southern Connecticut Conference. “There were plenty of pictures or videos showing kids not wearing the masks correctly.”
That has led to increased discussions among state and league officials, who realized they needed to hammer home the importance of wearing masks at all times to players and coaches.
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask wearing in all public settings, events and gatherings — generally any time people converge — and says the use of masks prevent the spread of the virus by blocking respiratory droplets containing it.
The National Federation of High School Athletic Associations recently released updated guidance from its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, which noted masks worn for indoor sports has shown a comparable low virus spread rate as playing sports outdoors, when masks aren’t used.
Connecticut has mandated masks in most of its winter sports, including basketball and hockey. Competitors in gymnastics and swimming do not, but they are required off the floor or out of the pool.
“Whether you think we should be wearing masks during competition or not, that’s your opinion,” Carbone said. “The fact is we have to wear masks and wear them correctly, or we won’t be able to play. …There are people in this state watching. People who make the decisions. The goal is to get through this winter season successfully and we want to hold a postseason. I don’t want our kids possibly missing out on that.”
Dan Scavone is the director of CIAC officials association, which includes 50 different officiating boards throughout all of the sports offered by the CIAC. During the winter season, it is just for the sports of basketball and hockey.
Scavone said he has had less than a handful of complaints from the public over the first couple of weeks. He said he helped run a Zoom call nearly two weeks ago with a large number of state athletic directors, along with officials assignors and rules interpreters with the sole purpose of discussing the mask protocol impact.
“I would say right now, mask protocol has been challenging, no doubt about it,” Scavone said. “We are dealing with it in terms of making schools and officials’ groups aware.”
The Zoom call served as a reminder of what the protocols are and who is responsible for making sure players wear their masks properly. And while officials do remind players to put their masks up, the responsibility does not fall on them, Scavone said.
“It is not the officials’ responsibility in terms of compliance. It really falls on school personnel, the site director, athletic director or coach. The officials are there to help the school become aware of it during play,” Scavone said. “This (the call) was one of the things we do feel was needed as a reminder and needed to be brought up. We all have to continue to work together with our mask compliance.”
In many cases masks slip below a player’s nose due to the physical nature of playing a sport, not a lack of respect for the protocols and rules. However, reminders to wear masks properly are still needed.
Erik Patchkofsky, New Haven’s citywide athletic director, said there were issues with mask compliance among players on Wilbur Cross in its game Feb. 16 against Notre Dame-West Haven at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.
“The first half of the game, I didn’t really notice it. I wasn’t focused on it,” Patchkofsky said. “We are having our games live streamed. I was watching that feed in the second half and realized it was an issue.”
The next tripleheader on Feb. 20, Patchkofsky said each athletic facilitator at the participating schools (Cross, Hillhouse and Career) sat behind the team bench area and would remind players to pull up their masks.
“I feel like this is something we have to watch and continue to reinforce as we play,” Patchkofsky said. “You can’t stop the game on every play, but you do have to remind kids to pull them up. I think this is a universal issue that needs to be addressed as we go and, most importantly, when we see it, we address it.”
But not everywhere has had issues with mask compliance.
Lyman Hall hockey coach Dave Sagnella says the rituals took some getting used to for his team. The team’s first game was a little awkward, he said, noting the alien nature of mandated mask breaks and their intention. “I think the masks are good,” he said. “It definitely took some getting used to.”
Sagnella initially thought a mask violation would be a penalty until he realized it wasn’t. “We didn’t find out the rules until two days before the games,” he said.
“Referees at times have to remind the players to keep their mask up and on properly. But this has not impacted the flow of the game at all,” Guilford coach Jeff DeMaio said. “Kids have generally been compliant and I have not witnessed many issues. We are grateful to be playing and the fact that we are playing trumps any inconvenience that we have to deal with.”
Like most programs, the Ridgefield boys basketball team needed time to adjust to wearing masks. Head coach Andrew McClellan said it has been pretty smooth since, in part because the program has an understanding about complying.
“It’s non-negotiable. Wear them correctly or don’t play for us,” McClellan said. “Our kids have adapted nicely and rarely, if ever, do we need to remind them to wear them correctly.”
There is a six-step mask protocol for officials to follow. The first step is to make mention of it in the coach/captain pre-game conference. Step No. 2 is to remind players during the game to keep their mask up.
If that doesn’t work, address the situation with the head coach (step 3). If that doesn’t work, address it with either the athletic director or site director at the next dead ball. Step 5 is to stop play and bring both coaches together to address the mask-wearing issues.
The final step is to call your assigning commissioner and have him reach out to the site or athletic director.
“I don’t see it getting to that point,” said Charley Harbach, the state rules interpreter for high school basketball and now in his 37th season officiating high school games. “We have the ability to send a kid to the bench if they refuse to wear the mask properly. … I’ve started out all my games at the captain’s meeting saying, ‘We are all lucky to be playing, so let’s all do our part in wearing the mask properly. We don’t want to lose our opportunity to play.’”
Scavone said there will be no technical fouls or penalties assessed, nor any fines issued to schools for continued non-compliance on masks. The idea is to be firm when it comes to compliance, not singling anybody out in an official capacity.
Carbone suggested that there’s enough societal stigma attached for those who don’t comply. “We’re now so ingrained in wearing masks, even my kids say it’s become kind of like a scarlet letter if you’re not doing it,” he said.
Mask breaks are provided at the midpoint of each quarter. One thing Scavone has noticed in some of the games he has attended, or complaints he has heard, are coaches using the timeouts for strategy sessions.
The breaks are meant for what they are intended to be — rest. Coaches say referees consistently remind coaches they cannot use the opportunity to offer anything other than encouragement from afar.
“If I talk to the kids at all it is (to say) just keep working,” Sagnella said. “It disrupts the flow of the game. You can be buzzing and there is a break for the opponent to recoup.” He also noted that some coaches have been reminded by referees they can’t coach during the breaks.
Trumbull hockey coach Greg Maxey said referees were “all over us” about wearing masks in his team’s first game, but he’s said they’ve largely let schools police themselves.
“I can’t remember the ref having to come to our bench about our kids not wearing their mask appropriately. That goes for our opponents as well,” he said.
Scavone said there have been enough issues statewide to keep hammering home the importance to stay vigilant.
“This is an area where more consistency is needed. It’s going to be a concerted effort with school personnel, coaches and officials to all do our part to safely play the game under the conditions set,” Scavone said.
Ultimately, it falls on athletic directors to make sure everyone’s in compliance.
“It is absolutely incumbent that every athletic director constantly reminds their coaches and athletes and if there is a problem, there may need to be consequences,” said Mark Berkowitz, Weston’s athletic director and the co-commissioner of the South-West Conference. “It has to become part of the culture. It’s what we have to do to keep our season going. In my opinion, it starts in practice. If we wear them correctly in practice, we will wear them correctly in the games.”
Berkowitz said the girls basketball team at Weston has “done an exceptional job” with mask compliance while the boys team has done a good job for the most part.
“The boys need some improvement. (The masks) tend to fall below their noses at times,” Berkowitz said.
During meetings with the SWC athletic directors, Berkowitz said some “have seen the same things I mentioned” but for the most part, has been good compliance.
The same goes for the FCIAC, according to commissioner Dave Schulz. His league has officials meet with coaches and players before to review the mask and distancing rules before every game.
“Our AD (Mike King) is on us constantly about doing the right thing,” Maxey said of his team. “Protecting us, our opponents and spring sports.”
FCIAC hockey has no issues, Schulz said. Basketball has “been a bit of a challenge to keep the masks up,” he said, but more for the boys than the girls. One problem is that coaches sometimes instinctively pull their masks down to bark plays or commands.
“They can do that in college basketball,” Schulz said. “But we’re trying to get the coaches to know that’s not something you should be doing. People are watching. Parents are in the stands.
“We all just have to be careful. We’ve got two more weeks of the regular season, then playoffs, and pretty soon it will be spring, and we’ll all be outside.”
Pete Paguaga and Scott Ericson contributed to this report.
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