Less than three weeks remain before the start of the Delaware high school fall season, and many groups still are wondering how the mandatory mask rule will be enforced.
Based upon recommendations and mandates from the Delaware Division of Public Health funneled through the DIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee [SMAC], Delaware joins Michigan as a state requiring nearly all of their athletes to wear masks during play.
SMAC Chair Dr. Michael Axe addressed the issue during September 8's meeting.
"We've made our statement which is social distancing and mask wear is critical. I don't know how we could be helpful in any other discussions, because we're not going to take them away."
There are plenty of discussions remaining, including ones between the DIAA, athletic directors, and the DIOC (Delaware Interscholastic Officials Council -- representing the 17 sport groups).
DIOC representative Walt Conner told WDEL that referees and officials specialize in enforcing rules, but at this point, there's not a lot to go with when it comes to masks, other than they are required, and a subsection saying if there is a medical condition, a reasonable accommodation can be made.
"We need the mask rule clearly defined, i.e. how are the masks to be worn during play, and what are the penalties for non-compliance? What the officials want are we want to be responsible for what happens between the lines."
Conner said if an allowance is made that includes a loophole for not having a mask, it could open a floodgate of people looking for that same allowance, and some officials might be forced into an unpopular decision.
"We want to know if those reasonable accommodations can include a participant not wearing a mask, because that has an impact on the personal and health decisions that our officials will be asked to make before they commit to officiating."
He also addressed the possibility that the Delaware Division of Public Health reverses its stance on mask use.
"If DPH comes out and says the game participants do not have to wear a mask during a game, each individual official is going to have to make the decision on whether they believe that is safe or not, and they will have to decide to officiate or not. If they choose not to officiate, there's nothing we can do to them. If they chose to officiate, they are assuming that risk as an independent contractor."
Conner said there has been no formal survey of fall officials and whether they would work this fall, and like much of the country, there isn't a uniform level of concern over COVID.
"We have had officials tell us they will ref under any circumstances, we have other officials who have said they will not ref under any circumstances in the COVID-19 era, and then we have others who say they need to know what the mask rule is, and they need to know if there is any possibility of not wearing masks during play, and then they will make their own decisions."
Just the officials who have said they won't ref game during the pandemic could make the downturn in the numbers of officials even worse.
"We expect a 30% drop in the numbers that we already have. In certain sports, they have heavy game days where every school plays on those days. That may not be possible because there may simply not be enough officials available who said they will work. That's an issue we will have to work out with the ADs and the assignors for each official's association to see if it's possible to play on different days. The schedule may look very different then tradition. Football plays Fridays and Saturdays, well if there's not enough football officials, can they move some games to Thursdays, can they move some games to Sundays?"
The timing of this has been compressed, with the DIAA reversing course on a previous decision to move the competition calendar to December, instead starting practices this past Monday, with games starting on October 19, less than 40 days after vote on September 11.
Enforcing the mask rule is something that still needs to be worked out, with the officials request to focus on game-related activities still in play.
"One of the things we need to know is who has the authority to stop the game? Do the game officials have the authority to stop the game? Do they need to take it to the COVID site coordinator? Does the COVID site coordinator bring the issue to the officials, and what happens after that?"
The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association has not released specific guidance to its schools on how mask use will be enforced. The next DIAA Board of Directors meeting is set for October 8, with the affirmation of the Board of Education needed on October 15, just four days before the soccer, volleyball, cross country, and field hockey seasons are slated to begin.
Conner said he's sometimes been in 2-3 meetings a night with many stakeholders trying to make sure the rules will work, once they figure out what they are.
"There's a lot more that goes into it than people have any clue (laughs). I think we counted 10 organizations. You have DPH, SMAC, DIAA, athletic directors, superintendents, school administrators, school nurses and medical personnel, officials association, police, and I'm sure I'm missing 1 or 2. That's a lot of people who need to know what this is going to look like."
Once DIOC has their agreement with the athletic directors, a final draft will go to the 17 officials associations and athletic directors for signatures.
Besides mask use, there still remain questions as to how DIAA or schools will react to any COVID outbreaks among member schools
OTHER NOTES: Salesianum still has just three games on their football schedule. Based upon the current DIAA regulations, if they scheduled a game out-of-state, they would still be required to wear masks, and any out-of-state team coming to Delaware would also be required to use them... Glasgow and Dickinson are considering moving their November 27 game to Thanksgiving morning, Lake Forest and Milford are already planning a morning kickoff... Saint Andrew's will not participate in any fall sports, as students are still arriving at the boarding school through Sunday, October 11... Tatnall will not play football this season, the Hornets had just 17 returning players off of last year's 2-8 team... SMAC is scheduled to meet on Tuesday ahead of October 8's DIAA Board Meeting... DIAA and Special Olympics Delaware are still planning to go ahead with a modified Unified Flag Football season, despite there potentially being less than the typical 10-school minimum for DIAA to sanction a sport. Just like Division 1 and 2 Football, they will likely need to find a new home for the championship, as Delaware Stadium is not being offered for outside groups.