As winter draws near and we spend more time indoors, local school committees like the one I’m on face a tremendous challenge: How do we offer high school sports programs during a pandemic that ensure the safety of our students and coaches?The most sensible and medically sound course of action is requiring that all high school student-athletes be vaccinated – and allowing them to practice and compete without masks.Unfortunately, the current approach in Maine high schools is backward. We mandate masks, a policy that, while helpful in reducing the spread of COVID-19, doesn’t maximize safety and doesn’t move us out of the pandemic. The one mandate that best achieves both objectives we ignore.Requiring high school athletes to wear masks while playing basketball, hockey, wrestling or running presents obvious challenges to their ability to breathe. It forces coaches to scale back conditioning programs and restricts any chance of offering the complete experience. Mandating masks last winter was necessary to make high school athletics possible, but only because there was no other option. Mandating masks this winter is unnecessary because there’s a better, safer alternative.Let’s be open to considering what most colleges are doing for their sports programs: mandating vaccines and testing, not masks. It’s a policy we could extend to any extracurricular program significantly disrupted by a mask mandate. High school dramatic performances were forced outside this fall and will be severely limited this winter. But if student performers were all vaccinated and participating in pooled testing they could remove their masks and perform indoors, as is now happening at theater venues across the country.Waiting for things to improve isn’t an option. We’ve tried that for eight months; it hasn’t worked. Instead, we should follow science and craft policy that reflects it.Our students deserve nothing less.

Newell Augur