Scott Rousseau, coach of the Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach/Kennebunk/Windham girls’ hockey team, speaks with his players during a break in the action in a game on Jan. 5. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The question made Scott Rousseau chuckle. Have you seen less enforcement of the mask mandates during games this season?

“Have you seen the pictures in your paper?” said Rousseau, the coach of the Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach/Kennebunk/Windham cooperative girls’ hockey team.

Those photos capture what fans and school officials have been seeing at high school events throughout the winter season: athletes wearing face coverings in various stages of effectiveness. Sometimes, snuggly around the mouth and nose, as required. More often, with the nose exposed, or the entire mask covering only the athlete’s chin.

“To say that masks are being worn 100 percent correctly would be a gross exaggeration,” said Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens. “If you want to be the mask police, you’ll be at it all night.”

Athletes say face coverings easily slip off their noses and mouths as they move and sweat during competition. Others cite mask fatigue during a second consecutive winter of competition during the coronavirus pandemic. Referees, coaches and athletic directors all play roles in trying to enforce the mask mandates – with varying degrees of success.

On Thursday, the state Department of Education reported a record number of COVID-19 cases at Maine schools during the first week of January after students and staff returned from winter break. Several high schools in southern Maine opted to go remote until after the MLK holiday weekend.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “recommends universal masking indoors in public in areas of substantial or high transmission,” including for those who are fully vaccinated. The CDC has designated all 16 counties in Maine, as well as the vast majority of counties across the nation, as high transmission during the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

Last winter, the Maine Principals’ Association mandated wearing masks for all indoor competition. This season, the MPA strongly recommends masks, but has left the decision to be made at the local level.

Before the start of this winter season, superintendents in Cumberland and York counties agreed to extend their in-school mask mandates to all extracurricular activities. Athletes in southern Maine must wear masks during competition and while on the sidelines.

Track and field athletes like Gorham senior Andrew Farr, one of the top sprinters in the state, are adjusting to wearing masks in competition for the first time. Last winter, indoor meets were held virtually, if at all. Masks were not required during the outdoor track season last spring.

Farr competed in the USM New Year’s Invitational on Dec. 30, winning the 55 and 400 meter races. The 55 is such a short race that the mask wasn’t a big factor, Farr said. In the 400, though, he knew the mask was slipping as he ran.

“I’ve really noticed it in the 200 and 400. The 55, you just go and get it over with. I kind of zone-out when I race, but (the mask) does slip. It was completely below my nose (at the finish). As long as you pull it up when you’re done, officials are OK with it,” Farr said.

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Edward Little’s John Shea goes up for a shot during a game in December. “I do not think about the mask one time when I’m playing. I’m thinking about what I have to do to help my team win,” he says. “The mask is the last thing I’m thinking about. … Nobody is wearing them properly.” Brewster Burns photo

John Shea, a senior at Edward Little High in Auburn, is one of the top boys’ basketball players in the state. He’s vaccinated, and frustrated he’s still required to wear a mask to play basketball. If it slips, it slips.

“I do not think about the mask one time when I’m playing. I’m thinking about what I have to do to help my team win,” Shea said. “The mask is the last thing I’m thinking about. … Nobody is wearing them properly.”

Shea said he hasn’t seen a player asked to leave the court and fix his mask this season. Officials have waited for a stoppage of play to casually remind players to adjust their masks.

“Most refs wait until there’s a foul and we’re all standing on the lane. They’ll stay ‘Fellas, masks’ and we pull them up over our nose,” Shea said.

While athletes at many schools adjust to varying degrees of mask rule enforcement, those from schools where masking is not required must adjust to putting masks back on when they face an opponent wearing them.

“Practicing every day without a mask has been great, but it makes it more difficult when we have to play games with a mask,” said Jaycie Christopher, a senior at Skowhegan High and one of the state’s top girls basketball players.

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Skowhegan High’s Jaycie Christopher dribbles up the court during a game last winter. “Last year, schools were a lot more strict about making sure that masks were pulled up, but we haven’t seen that as much this year,” she says. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Christopher said it’s a challenge to wear a mask during games, but “I don’t mind wearing (one) because it means we can play, and that’s all that matters.”

“I have noticed this year that people wear them below their nose. Last year, schools were a lot more strict about making sure that masks were pulled up, but we haven’t seen that as much this year.”

WHO ARE THE MASK POLICE?

Just who has to act as the mask police is up for debate. Is it the athletic directors who act as site managers when their school hosts a game? Already burdened with enough tasks, should the ADs also enforce the policies enacted by their school boards and superintendents? Is it coaches, already concerned with managing their team through the game’s action?

“As a coach if I see it (down) I tell them to pull it up. But I don’t think that’s happening a lot. … If you’ve got to wear it, you should honor the intentions. If you’re going to have to wear a mask, you have to wear a mask,” said Bill Goodman, girls’ basketball coach at Cheverus High. “And I would expect anybody, an opposing coach or referee, that if my player is not wearing properly, to call us out. I think it’s an unfair advantage (when masks aren’t worn properly).”

Added Sanford boys’ basketball coach Jake Mills: “In practice I try to hold them accountable and then in games, it depends on who the refs are. One game they removed kids if it slipped down. All the other games they just ask them to pull them up during stoppages.”

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Rousseau, the Cheverus hockey coach, said his players use masks that clip to the face shield cages on their helmets. Rousseau sees the masks as a necessary nuisance, the price of playing the game.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Rousseau said. “The players are frustrated but they want to play.”

Wes Sirois, a longtime basketball official, said he asks the home-court athletic director before the game begins: How closely do you want mask-wearing monitored?

“If they want it enforced strictly we treat it like any other equipment issue. Warn (the players), ask them to wear it correctly during a dead ball and if not send them out,” Sirois said. “Me personally, I ask the AD or head coach how they want it enforced. If they say not that strictly, I don’t do much of anything. If they say enforce it, I will address it during dead balls. As long as it’s over their mouth to me they are trying to wear it correctly.”

Jeff Benson, the MPA’s commissioner of officials, said officials in all sports will follow the policy set by the host school. Where masks are required, they are considered part of the uniform. If a school wants mask-wearing enforced vigorously, it could ask officials to send an athlete off the playing surface for a uniform violation, as they would for an untucked jersey or improperly worn mouth guard.

Officials, too, are seeing their masks slip below the nose and mouth in the flow of the game.

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“We get it. We’re going to be sweating. They’ll slip down,” Benson said. “I don’t think we’re lax in enforcing it.”

Marshwood’s Aidan Sullivan looks to make a pass during a game last winter. “Airflow is definitely a problem when you start running up and down, getting tired and need some wind,” Sullivan says of wearing a mask. “But honestly if we all want to play it’s just what we have to do and for the love of the game that we have, we’ll just do it because we want to be out here and playing.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Prior to a boys’ basketball game between Marshwood and Kennebunk on Jan. 6, both teams were told by Kennebunk athletic director Joe Schwartzman and the officials that players would be asked to leave the court if their mask was worn improperly. Marshwood senior Aidan Sullivan said players were told if they had to adjust their mask or briefly remove it to take a deep breath, get away from other people and do it quickly.

“Airflow is definitely a problem when you start running up and down, getting tired and need some wind,” Sullivan said of wearing a mask. “But honestly if we all want to play it’s just what we have to do and for the love of the game that we have, we’ll just do it because we want to be out here and playing.”

John Suttie, the superintendent of RSU 23 and principal at Old Orchard Beach High, said while there hasn’t been 100 percent compliance with the rule, that’s not a huge cause for concern. Students have to be reminded to wear their masks properly throughout the school day, Suttie said, so when they’re exerting themselves physically in athletic competition, nobody should be surprised those reminders need to continue.

“I’ve attended games this winter and seen the challenge of enforcing the rule. Masks do slip down, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally,” Suttie said. “People are being too critical when people are doing the best they can.”

Staff Writers Steve Craig and Mike Lowe contributed to this report.


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