The start of the winter high school sports season is two months away, but the coronavirus pandemic already has many teams searching for a home.

Colleges that are relied upon for their arenas and pools for sports such as indoor track, ice hockey and swimming are either closing their doors again or requiring proof of vaccination or negative test results, forcing high schools to abide by those rules or find a backup plan.

A year ago, the college venues were off-limits, their campuses closed to the public because of the pandemic. That forced cancellation of the high school indoor track schedule and swimming state championships. This winter some of those colleges are reopening their facilities to high schools, but with stipulations.

“My thing is, whatever you’ve got to do, you’ve got to do,” said George Mendros, the veteran track coach at Thornton Academy in Saco. “We’re renting out a facility. They want to be safe, they want to do things correctly. And we have to do things they tell us to do.”

Complicating matters is that the protocols vary from college to college and at other facilities that are used by high school teams and the Maine Principals’ Association. Those protocols could change in the coming weeks and months, depending on the severity of the pandemic. But for now:

• Bowdoin College, which has opened its facilities to Brunswick, Mt. Ararat, Morse and Freeport high schools, requires all visitors to its campus to be vaccinated.

• Colby College and Bates College, traditionally host to one of the two state track championship meets, have closed their facilities to high school sports.

• St. Joseph’s College and the University of New England require anyone using their pools to be vaccinated. But high school teams who use the Harold Alfond Forum at UNE for ice hockey need only wear a mask on and off the ice.

Members of the Cony High girls’ swim team cheer on a teammate during the 2018 Class A state championships at the University of Maine in Orono. The UMaine System will require proof of vaccination, or a negative test result within 72 hours, for any indoor activities that include 250 or more individuals. Kevin Bennett photo

• Schools within the University of Maine System, which include the flagship campus in Orono and the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, will require proof of vaccination, or a negative test result within 72 hours, for any indoor activities that include 250 or more individuals. That covers just about every track meet at those facilities, as well as state swimming championships typically held on the Orono campus. Masks also must be worn, but not by athletes during competition.

• The Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, site of some northern basketball tournaments, is available for high school athletics. Masks must be worn at all times by spectators; whether players must wear them or not will depend on MPA rules.

• The Augusta Civic Center is planning on hosting high school basketball and cheering, and is “not requiring proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test at this time,” according to general manager Margaret Noel.

• The Portland Expo, home to Portland High’s basketball teams and the early rounds of the southern basketball tournaments, will require proof of vaccination for fans, but not, at this time, for team personnel.

• Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, home to the Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland high school hockey teams and the late rounds of the southern basketball tournaments, is only recommending masks be worn inside.

All policies that require proof of vaccination apply to athletes, coaches, officials and fans.

High schools have relied on colleges for years because of a lack of facilities elsewhere. No high schools have an indoor track large enough to hold meets and few have swimming pools. The growth of girls’ ice hockey and influx of new teams has put a stress on the public and private rinks that offer times for games and practices.

Colleges typically want high schools to use their facilities because it not only showcases their campuses and offerings, but strengthens their relationships with the community.

“You’re at the mercy of the facilities that you don’t have,” said Windham Athletic Director Rich Drummond. “So you have to abide by their expectations.”

Chad Foye, the athletic director at Messalonskee High in Oakland, said high schools need to be ready to adjust on the fly.

“We’re just kind of waiting out to see what those (college) policies are going to be, and how much they change things. Things with COVID change quite a bit.”

High school athletic directors are already deep into their preparations for the winter season.

“I’ve got two or three different scratch pads here on my desk with ‘Where could we go if this was the decision?’ Or ‘What’s our ice time availability at this rink if we have to go that way?'” said Brunswick Athletic Director Aaron Watson. “The desk is a little messy right now.”

Brunswick High uses Bowdoin College’s ice rink for practices and home games. Bowdoin is requiring all visitors to its campus to show proof of vaccination this winter. John Ewing/Portland Press Herald

Normally, Brunswick’s answer to those questions is Bowdoin. It could be still, though with Bowdoin requiring that its campus visitors be vaccinated, Watson knows the situation could lead to a tricky dilemma.

“We’re trying to get a pathway or a doorway open for kids that are not vaccinated,” he said. But “if the decision were final from any indoor facility, be it USM or Bates, Bowdoin, Colby or whatnot that you have to be vaccinated, then unfortunately our students have to make a choice in order to participate on that sports team.”

Windham’s swim teams, along with those at Bonny Eagle, use the swimming pool at St. Joseph’s College. Drummond has already met with his potential swimmers to let them know of the vaccination requirement. He doesn’t know if any will drop from the team.

Eric Curtis, the athletic director at Bonny Eagle, also met with the swim parents and booster club. “Everyone seemed OK with it,” he said of the vaccination requirement. “Something could come up, but right now it doesn’t seem to be an issue. I have not had a kid or parent say they’re not going to swim because we’re going to St. Joe’s.”

Athletic directors simply want to know the guidelines well in advance, to give their athletes time to get vaccinated if they choose. That could take up to five weeks.

“If you give the kids enough heads-up, that’s all I ask,” said Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell. “If we’re required to be vaccinated, we’ll only have kids who are vaccinated going to those facilities. I’d rather have them tell us now, so parents can have those conversations with their kids about getting vaccinated.”

Some schools have already begun making contingency plans. While Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels said “there may be a percentage of students who aren’t vaccinated who may choose to go get vaccinated,” he’s begun conversations with Greely High in Cumberland, which has its own pool.

Messalonskee High normally uses Colby for indoor track and hockey, but that’s not available so Foye is looking at the Camden National Bank Ice Rink. “Indoor track, boy, that’s still up in the air,” he said. “Without the colleges, we don’t have meets, because there’s no other place to hold them.”

Some high school officials are hoping that the colleges might be willing to make exceptions. But as Jim Caton, the assistant athletic director of communications at Bowdoin, said, “It’s vaxxed or not. It’s a hard-and-fast rule, no matter where you are on campus, even outdoors. That’s our campus community right now. That’s the game plan.”

Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director, said the association is in the process of scheduling talks with the colleges regarding the use of their facilities.

Joe Schwartzman, the athletic director at Kennebunk, said it would help to get some direction.

“It’s definitely an evolving thing,” he said. “I know in group texts (with other athletic directors), everyone is waiting for someone to tell us what to do. But nobody is going to tell us what to do. So we’re going to have to figure it out on our own.”

Bates College in Lewiston, site of the 2019 Class B high school indoor track state championships, is not allowing high school events on its campus this winter. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald

And that’s worrisome, because there are many questions still unanswered. For instance, in an event at one of the UMaine System campuses, how will the crowd size be determined? If two hockey teams are playing at USM and the crowd is less than 250, proof of vaccination won’t be required. But how will they know the crowd size until the game is actually played?

Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton Academy in Saco, said the vaccination requirements are “a new frontier. How do you document the proof of vaccination? How do you confirm that? How do you make sure the facility is aware of who is vaccinated without violating a student’s HIPAA rights?”

Bowdoin’s Caton said visiting schools have to figure out who is going to be in charge of confirming the vaccinations. “Who does that fall to?” he said. “Does it fall to the host school? Who’s reporting it to them?”

Mt. Ararat Athletic Director Geoff Godo said those discussions have begun. “We’ve had those conversations,” he said. “We’ve discussed some situations, and vaccine requirements or consistent testing requirements have obviously been a big part of the discussions we’ve had.”

Athletic directors acknowledged the potential for a situation in which teams decide whether to participate with only the vaccinated portion of their roster.

“I think you’ve got to,” said Messalonskee’s Foye. “You’ve got to commit to playing the games. … If that’s a requirement and people aren’t willing to follow the requirement for that facility, then they can’t play. So the coaches are going to have to adjust their lineups based on that.”

Winslow High indoor track coach Ken Nadeau said he’s optimistic his sport will have a season, but acknowledged the need for colleges to be an option.

“I think the MPA is going to try to put something together, but I think we are at the mercy of the local universities and colleges,” he said. “They have a right to protect their student population. … It puts a lot of pressure on the public education system to say, ‘Hey, if you want to participate, you have to get vaccinated.’ It’s just a hard message. But I totally see both sides of the coin.”

And those policies could change as the pandemic continues. “We’re constantly evaluating these policies,” said Sarah Delage the director of public relations and communications at UNE. “We’re re-evaluating them and talking them through and everything is subject to change. It’s ever-evolving.”

Athletic directors know this.

“Just like anything,” said Windham’s Drummond, “when you’re dealing with this information, you better be able to adjust on the fly.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.