by Emily Schwartz, Managing Editor
graphic by Emily Cheng
Sighs of relief and apprehension could be heard at the track on May 20 — under masks and, for the first time, without them — as the Newton Public Schools officially put into effect the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (MIAA) guidance, which declared mask-wearing during outdoor sports as optional.
The May 18 MIAA guidance states that for outdoor sports, athletes in active play or on the bench, as well as all other personnel at a game who can maintain social distance, are not required to wear a mask. For low-risk indoor sports, athletes who can maintain a distance of 14 feet or more are not required to wear a mask, while spectators are still required to cover their faces.
The guidance was released as 12-15 year-olds became eligible to receive the vaccine, further leading to Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement on May 17 that an updated mask order will take effect May 29.
The order echoed the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) May 13 guidance that fully vaccinated people can resume almost all pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask or keeping social distance, though exceptions include while on public transportation, inside schools and in hospitals.
The advice sparked uncertainty, surprise, skepticism and joy for many, and marked a turning point in the pandemic. The Roar spoke with South parent, health policy expert and Brown University’s School of Public Health Dean and Professor Dr. Ashish Jha about his predictions and guidance regarding these new developments.
Jha said he mostly agrees with the CDC’s guidance that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors or out, yet that he is still concerned about being maskless indoors because 12-15 year-olds who became eligible for vaccines on May 12 will not be fully protected for at least another month.
Outdoor spaces, including outdoor sports, on the other hand, are safe with the exceptions of crowded concerts and rallies, he said.
“The science on this was very clear. I don’t think kids need to be wearing masks outdoors for sports,” he said. “You’re not going to spend enough time in anybody else’s airspace to get infected, and we talked about having good ventilation. Outdoors is amazing ventilation.”
At all stages of the pandemic, regardless of new science and research, there have been discrepancies in mask enforcement nationwide. Even at South, teams have implemented the new guidance differently.
The girls track team continues to wear masks at practice when not running, captain junior Sofia Arboleda said. The girls tennis team, however, only wears masks when taking the bus to away matches.
The new guidelines feel relatively safe, junior girls lacrosse player Celia Chen said, especially as most 16-17 year-olds are fully vaccinated and protected after becoming eligible April 19.
Arboleda said that the vaccine has largely impacted her comfort levels.
“I am fully vaccinated, so I have more peace of mind than if I wasn’t, but if we weren’t wearing masks a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t feel super safe,” she said. “I feel relatively safe with [the new guidelines], but I see how people might be uncomfortable if they’re not vaccinated.”
Sophomore boys lacrosse player Zach LeBlanc said that he feels safe taking off his mask because he trusts the expertise of those who made the guidelines.
“If the people who have more experience in the medical field than I do feel that it is safe, then I am ready to embrace that,” he said.
Girls tennis captain senior Maya Zeldin said that it has been a transition, but that in addition to her mostly-vaccinated team, the increase in testing has contributed to her feeling safe.
“It was weird the first day. You’ve been wearing masks for so long, and now it’s just faces,” she said. “If people weren’t getting tested so often, and I wasn’t fully vaccinated, I’d be a bit more worried.”
Testing and masking will be key when looking ahead to a “normal” fall, Jha said, if schools do not mandate vaccines. He said that people can and should still wear masks, especially if they feel more comfortable doing so.
“I know it’s a difficult transition, and the one thing that I’ve said to people is there are still people who feel more comfortable wearing a mask,” he said. “When I said we don’t need to, it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be allowed to.”