NHIAA says wearing a mask while competing in high school sports no longer needed

  • The ConVal tennis team hosted Souhegan on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monitor staff
Published: 5/17/2021 11:18:47 PM
Modified: 5/17/2021 11:18:45 PM

With the number of COVID infections declining and the governor’s announcement last month that mask-wearing was optional in the state, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association announced that it has changed course and now thinks high school athletes should have their choice, mask or no mask, for all upcoming state playoff games.

The ruling — which followed the governor’s executive order last month — 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, areas outside the courts, fields and tracks, students are still urged to wear masks.

“To clarify, masks will be required on the bench, bus, and any area of congregation,” said an in-house memo, sent by the Concord High administration to students. “An athlete can choose to wear a mask while competing, but it will not be required. This is the model that we successfully followed in the fall.”

Previously, the NHIAA — the governing body of high school athletics in the Granite 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. Yes, tennis, too.

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.

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 director 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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