HALLOWELL — Hall-Dale High School student TJ Wilson won’t be able to play basketball maskless this winter season, school officials decided this week, after a rare case in which a family and their lawyer sought out a medical exemption.

Wilson, a 16-year-old junior who has moderate asthma and is unvaccinated, will still have to wear a mask while playing, but will have limited playing time, be monitored by his coaches and be able to take breaks when needed, officials decided.

Junior TJ Wilson and his family asked to be exempt from wearing a mask while playing basketball due to a medical condition. Photo courtesy of Brandi Collins

“Wilson was disheartened to hear he would still have to wear one (a mask),” said his sister and guardian, Brandi Collins. “He voiced to them how he had to use his rescue inhaler more than he ever had to before (last year). He is a 16-year-old kid who just wants to play for his high school team.”

The case is providing an early window into how tricky issues of mask-wearing in winter sports are being handled, now that local school districts are setting their own pandemic protocol policies even as COVID-19 surges in Maine because of the more contagious delta variant.

Collins called the school district decision “reasonable” but said it still did not solve Wilson’s problem.

Skipping his basketball season is not an option for Wilson. As a junior, this season will be one of his most critical years yet for his basketball career if he wants to play at the next level, but with his moderate-level asthma, he and his family had sought out options on how he would play with a mask on — something his cardiologist said he “should not do,” but was mandated by Regional School Unit 2 for all winter sports athletes.

Collins was first in contact with the district over Wilson’s medical condition in June and started to look into Wilson’s condition with a cardiologist after the last winter sports season when Wilson experienced “extreme difficulties breathing” while wearing a mask on the court. She was worried about Wilson playing basketball because of his experience last year, and also because their brother died at age 22 from sudden cardiac issues.

Wilson is unvaccinated from COVID-19 due to a reaction to a vaccine when he was younger, Collins said.

A couple of weeks ahead of the winter sports season and the November school board meeting, Collins contacted Superintendent Tonya Arnold on Nov. 2 and asked what the policies would be for the upcoming sports season.

School districts had to set their own guidelines for winter sports after having to start the sports season without clear direction from the Maine Principals’ Association. At the Nov. 4 board of directors meeting for RSU 2, the board, on recommendation from Arnold, decided to mandate masks inside for everyone, including competing athletes.

In response to Collins’ note, Arnold said Wilson would need a “504 exemption” in addition to his medical note. A 504 exemption is traditionally used in a classroom if a student needs accommodations for learning resulting from a mental or physical disability. In the case of sports, a 504 plan would be used to make sure a student has an equitable advantage as every other student to play the sport — Collins and Wilson said wearing a mask while playing a physical sport indoors has caused Wilson to experience “extreme difficulties breathing” resulting from his asthma.

The family went through the 504 process and on Nov. 9, Collins’ husband, Eric, met with Hall-Dale High School Principal Mark Tinkham, Athletic Director Chris Ranslow and Deb Murphy, the special education director, to determine Wilson’s 504 eligibility.

According to Brandi Collins, at the Nov. 9 meeting, Murphy said Wilson would still have to wear a mask while playing in a sports competition because the “medical exemption was not enough evidence to support a 504 eligibility because the exemption said Wilson ‘should’ not participate in a physical activity while wearing a mask instead of the ‘must’ not wear a mask.”

“Asthma is pretty common,” Collins said. “How many other kiddos are playing in a mask and have trouble breathing?”

Collins and her husband resubmitted Wilson’s medical note after having another discussion with his doctor on Nov. 10 and heard nothing back from the district until Nov. 18, when the Collinses sent a letter from their lawyer. An hour later, they received a response from Murphy who asked to arrange a meeting for Monday to discuss Wilson’s plan and his 504 plan was accepted on Nov. 22, the same day pre-season started for winter sports.

Collins was told “only the superintendent” is able to change policy, despite hearing from Arnold what Wilson needed in order to have sport modifications was a 504 plan along with a note from his doctor. Arnold also told them it would be up to the MPA to decide if the conference would accept medical exemptions, but Jim Palmer, vice president of the Mountain Valley Conference, the sports conference RSU 2 competes in, confirmed Wilson’s exemption would be handled at the local level, as did Emily Poland from the Maine Principals’ Association. Palmer said having a medical exemption is not something the conference saw last year when masks were fully required of everyone.

Collins and her husband suggested Wilson participate in pool testing since he is unvaccinated and would provide a negative test before getting on the court, but they said the district was not receptive to the suggestion.

“It feels restrictive,” Collins said. “The superintendent of RSU 2 doesn’t want to have any other options, she had no intention of changing her mind. At the board meeting (on Nov. 4), it was clear she had made the decision and sent it out to board members who didn’t have a chance to review the policy.”

Collins is referring to the board of directors meeting from Nov. 4 — members of the board received Arnold’s winter sport recommendations only 25 minutes before the meeting. The timing of the recommendations was criticized by board member Dawn Gallagher, who in the past has requested documents be submitted to members 24 hours in advance. She said the board needed more time to review the documents and policy that would be in conjunction with the recommendations.

In response to Gallagher, Arnold said the issue of winter sports has been an ongoing issue and that meetings started three weeks prior to when the board met on Nov. 4. “That makes it even worse,” Gallagher said in response.

Arnold did not respond to the Kennebec Journal’s attempt to reach her, as she is out of the office until next week.

The winter sports recommendation was not passed by a formal vote since the district agreed to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines. After “hearing mostly support” for the winter sport recommendation, Board Chair Jon Hamann passed it along as accepted — universal masking, four tickets per athlete and only playing against schools that also adopt universal masking.

The board did give permission for the district to make decisions that fall in line with CDC guidelines, but the CDC guidelines for people participating in high-intensity activities who are “unable to wear a mask because of difficulty breathing during high intensity activity,” should choose a location with greater airflow and ventilation, even though it is recommended for youth sports players to wear a mask while indoors.

Though the Maine Principals’ Association did not release specific guidelines, they “strongly recommend” masks, pool testing and for student athletes to be vaccinated.

Collins’ husband, Eric, just wants Wilson to be able to experience his basketball season.

He worries if Wilson has to sit this year out, he won’t be able to become a leader or further his career in basketball. Eric Collins doesn’t know what would happen if Wilson were to miss this year, or next year if COVID-19 is still highly transmittable.

“From the athletic perspective, junior year is where you learn to be a leader on and off the field, it just clicks,” Eric Collins said. “Here I am … do we risk everything from Wilson’s developmental side (for) one superintendent who won’t change her policy? It’s tough and I think he really needs to be there with his team.”

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