With the number of COVID infections declining and the governor’s announcement last month that mask-wearing is now optional in the state, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association has changed course and now says high school athletes should have their choice, mask or no mask, for all upcoming state playoff games.
The ruling means schools are free to tell their athletes they no longer need to wear masks to compete in athletic competitions.
In March, the NHIAA’s sports medicine council voted to require masks at all high school sports events, with the option to review the policy in May and perhaps loosen it.
“We said that we should look at it again,” said NHIAA Executive Director Jeff Collins. “Now it’s a recommendation, not the mandate.”
However, in areas outside the courts, fields and tracks, students are still urged to wear masks.
Previously, the NHIAA – the governing body of high school athletics in the state – had left it up to each member school to decide for itself if masks would be needed to compete, but recommended they be required for all sports including baseball, softball and tennis. The only exceptions to mask wearing were in a few track events like hurdles, pole vault, shot put, discus and javelin, where face covering could be considered a safety hazard.
Over the past year, individual school districts have navigated the question of athletics in the pandemic in different ways. For example, Concord-area high schools – including Bow, Bishop Brady, Coe-Brown, John Stark, Kearsarge, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke Academy, Hopkinton and Hillsboro-Deering – formed a cohort last year to play each other and avoid long trips for away games during the pandemic. They all agreed to follow the NHIAA guidelines and mask up for competition this spring.
Controversy erupted quickly as critics questioned the data and logic behind the decision.
Pembroke Academy spring track coach Brad Keyes refused to force his runners to wear masks, defying a direct order from his boss, Pembroke Academy Athletic Director Fred Vezina.
Keyes eventually sent Vezina an email and told him he could not, in good conscience, insist that his runners wear masks. There was no danger of contagion running around the track, Keyes said, and athletes’ breathing would be impaired.
Vezina, who was in step with the other schools in the cohort, said Keyes’s message was handled in an “unprofessional manner,” and fired him, attracting the national media, including Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Neither Vezina nor Keyes was available Monday to comment on the new policy. At the time, Keyes said:
“I think they were put into place to say, ‘Look, we did something, look, we did everything we could to prevent the spread,’ ” Keyes said. “And in everything, that means wearing a mask no matter what. A tennis court, a singles match. I don’t know what to say.”
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