The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted Tuesday to no longer require masks to be worn by athletes and officials actively competing in their respective sport beginning with winter playoffs on March 9.
The board also voted to drop the mask mandate for spring sports athlete who are actively competing. Coaches, players on the bench or in dugouts and parents are still required to wear masks.
Masks will still need to be worn through the end of the winter sports regular season.
“Due to improving Covid-19 metrics, the AIA Executive Board voted to approve removing the mask mandate for the spring season and winter playoffs, including Spiritline,” the AIA said in a press release. “Students, coaches, officials and other personnel must wear a mask when not actively playing or in the arena of competition. All spectators in attendance for a contest must wear an approved mask or face covering. Please note that mesh face masks are not acceptable face coverings.”
The board meeting Tuesday took several twists and turns.
Initially, the board voted for only boys volleyball – the lone indoor spring sport – to continue to wear masks while competing. The board then approved masks to continue to be worn for winter sports athletes before board member Jim Dean motioned for the mandate to be lifted at the start of the postseason. That motion passed.
As a result, a new motion was presented to drop the mask mandate for boys volleyball players actively competing. It passed.
Dr. Camille Casteel, the superintendent of the Chandler Unified School District and an acting board member, raised concerns about the initial motion to single out boys volleyball as an indoor sport and require those athletes to continue to wear masks.
“My concern is eliminating the volleyball folks and forcing them to wear masks,” Casteel said. “When you look at the data we are receiving, it is two weeks behind. There’s been a steady decline for the last six weeks … if you project that six-week trend two weeks further, I would support all sports having the same aspect.”
The mask mandate was put in place before the start of the winter sports season as a recommendation from the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, which has guided the organization through the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, the winter sports season was canceled by the executive board. However, a re-vote just days later allowed the season to continue with the stipulation that all athletes wear masks.
A potential modification to the mask rule was brought up in the board’s last meeting on Feb. 16 but was not officially voted on. At the time, board member Jim Love — who voted to cancel then reinstate winter sports — said he would vote to cancel the remaining winter and spring seasons if the mask modification was changed.
He maintained his stance on keeping the mask mandate in place for indoor sports.
“Yes, we are still coming down, but we are far from being out of the problem,” Love said. “Any time you have anyone indoors and they’re talking and breathing hard that close to each other, they should have a mask on.”
The modification comes after weeks of declining COVID-19 metrics. In Maricopa County, the number of cases per 100,000 people has plummeted from a high of 975 for the week of Jan. 3 to 173 as of this week. The positivity rate, which was at its highest point of 24.3 percent during the week of Dec. 27, is now at 8.9 percent. It’s the first time that metric is below 10 percent since October.
Hospital visits for COVID-like illness, the third key metric the AIA and schools are using to determine where the state and counties stand in the pandemic, has fallen to 6 percent this week. During the week of Jan. 3, it was at a high of 19.2 percent. While cases have declined, the number of individuals being vaccinated has increased. The Arizona Department of Health reported Tuesday more than 1.8 million people have received the vaccine. More than 600,000 of those have received both shots.
The 2020 spring sports season was canceled last year at the start of the pandemic. This year, the AIA has given all sports – baseball, softball, tennis, track and field, boys volleyball and beach volleyball – the go-ahead to begin. Competition begins March 12.