HAVERHILL — Haverhill schools will not require basketball players, coaches and fans to wear masks at home games this winter.

The Haverhill Cooperative School Board on Monday voted 5-2 against a mask mandate for the 2021-2022 season.

It applies to all grade levels, including the Woodsville High School varsity boys and girls basketball squads, whose home games are played in the Dr. John A. Bagonzi Community Building and at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School.

Haverhill teams will still be required to follow masking policies set by host districts at away games.

The school board will take up a separate motion on basketball spectator limits at their next meeting on Dec. 13.

Meanwhile the Haverhill Cooperative School District will maintain universal masking for teachers, and targeted mask protocols for students, for the time being.

ON THE COURT…

School Board member Michael Aremburg made the motion to not require masks at basketball games. It was supported by Chair Richard Guy, Vice Chair John Rutherford, and members Alexandra Keeler, Stephanie Chase and Aremburg.

Rutherford said the mask requirement made no sense for students, because they were already in close contact — in and out of school — and had low transmission rates, and was equally pointless for fans, who assumed significant risk when they sat “shoulder to shoulder” in a basketball gym.

“If you’re packing a gym with fans, masked or unmasked, it’s risky either way,” he said.

Keeler said mask enforcement posed unwieldy logistical and community relations problems.

“I just think it will be a problematic situation to be turning away parents at the door,” she said.

Meanwhile, Board member Donald Locascio and Sabrina Brown opposed the motion.

Locascio questioned how the school district could justify in-school masking policies, if they did not require face coverings at basketball games.

“It seems inconsistent to me,” he said.

He questioned the timing of the ‘no mask required’ policy for basketball games, noting that COVID numbers were up statewide and locally. New Hampshire is experiencing its highest infection rate since January, there are substantial levels of community spread in all 10 counties, and there were 22 active cases in the Town of Haverhill and 14 in the Haverhill Cooperative School District as of Friday.

“With more cases than in the past, it doesn’t seem like the right time “

School districts across the state are grappling with the issue of mask-wearing and winter sports as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise across New Hampshire.

The state is seeing its highest infection rates since January and there are substantial levels of community spread in all 10 counties.

Brown argued that a mask mandate would have maximized safety, made games welcoming to all community members, and addressed concerns about cross-community COVID transmission from visiting fans.

The Woodsville High School varsity boys and girls basketball teams open the season with away games at Pittsburg-Canaan on Dec. 10 and Lisbon Regional on Dec. 13 before hosting Gorham for their home opener on Dec. 15.

IN THE CLASSROOM…

In September the Haverhill Cooperative School Board approved a universal mask mandate for all staff and targeted mask protocols for students.

The student protocols are triggered by positive COVID cases. A single positive case requires students in a single classroom (grades PreK to 6) or grade level (grades 7 to 12) to mask up for 10 days. When a school has three or more active cases at the same time, all students and staff must mask up for 10 days.

Those measures will remain in place — probably until after Christmas break when children ages 5 to 11 have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.

In the meantime, the school district will conduct a new student, staff and parent survey. The school board requested the information, to provide an updated look at public opinion. Survey results will guide future school board decisions on mask mandates and other COVID mitigation measures. A timeline for that survey is to be determined.

On Monday, Rutherford floated the idea of eliminating classroom mask requirements immediately, to bring them in line with the basketball game policy.

However, Guy, the former head of Woodsville Ambulance, recommended against that.

“It makes no sense to me at all when we’re having cases that are growing at such a fast rate to throw caution to the wind and see what happens. I’m not concerned about kids getting COVID and getting sick and dying. No, I’m not. They’re resilient. They’re not immune, but they’re more resilient. I’m more concerned about us having a little petri dish where they get exposed, taking it home to their parents and grandparents. Those are the people that I’m seeing dying, and I’m not enjoying watching it,” he said.

David Robinson, whose 6-year-old daughter Avery has cystic fibrosis, asked the school board to maintain staff and student mask requirements through January so that younger children — particularly those at risk — can complete their two shot cycle and reach full vaccination status.

“I’m just asking as a parent that you continue what has been working for a little bit longer,” he said.

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