The Augusta Board of Education at its Nov. 16 business meeting. The board voted to mandate pool testing for all winter athletes. Emily Duggan via screengrab.

AUGUSTA — School athletes will be required to undergo regular testing for COVID-19 in order to participate in the upcoming winter sports season.

The Augusta Board of Education vote on Wednesday of last week to mandate pool testing for all of the district’s athletes came on the recommendation of Athletic Director Jon Millett.

Millett said in an interview Tuesday that pool testing is just the plan for winter sports while indoor sports are going on. He said all students have to wear masks during competition and on the sidelines, but that it could change at any point in time depending on if the Maine Principals’ Association or the Maine Center For Disease Control comes out with specific guidelines for winter sports, which they have not yet.

School officials hope the rule will keep both athletes and the Cony High School community safe from COVID-19. Board member Staci Fortunato summarized why the board decided to go through with the recommendation.

“Athletes come into direct physical contact with players from other communities; it puts them more at risk for COVID-19 than the regular student body,” Fortunato said, and added the coaches all supported the decision.

The Augusta Public Schools currently have pool testing in place for students whose parents agree to opt them into it, meaning they are tested regularly. The benefit of pool testing for the district is that students who participate are not required to quarantine if they are found to be a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case resulting from the classroom.

The policy comes as COVID cases continue an upward trend statewide, while Kennebec County marked its largest single-day case count last week.

Pool testing would take place weekly on Tuesday and students are able to get results back within 24 to 48 hours. If a student on the team tests positive, then only that student would have to quarantine.

“The thought behind it is while school is mandatory and all students have to be here, they have a choice in pool testing. But sports are not a right; it’s a privilege students are able to do,” said board member Kimberly Martin. “If they are choosing to participate in sports, they are choosing to participate in pool testing.”

Kyle Douin of Cony, right, takes a step toward the basket while Brandon Emerson of Mt. Ararat defends during a boys basketball game between Cony and Mt. Ararat on Jan. 11 in Topsham. Eli Canfield/The Times Record file

The winter sports season is slated to start Monday, Nov. 22. On average, Millett said 180 students participate in winter sports. He did not have the number of students participating this year since the season has not begun yet.

The main point Millett wanted to emphasize is that the rule is intended to maintain the safety of “the school community and community at large” from COVID-19. Spectators will have to wear masks, too.

Heidi Wardwell, who was elected this past election as a write-in candidate for Ward 3, spoke during public comment on her experience campaigning for her board position. She said she heard from parents about the importance of athletics for students and did not think parents would want their children to participate in sports if pool testing was mandatory.

“Athletics and sports are important to students, both mentally, physically and socially, whether they go to school, are home-schooled or completely remote, it gives students a chance to participate and grow those skills,” Wardwell said. “A lot of people thought pool testing would be … a distraction, from what they want their students to get out of playing sports.”

Fortunato added some facilities the district uses for winter sports will require students to either be vaccinated or have a negative test. Millett attested to it and said different facilities have different rules.

He said some facilities might be able to take a negative pool test as proof of being negative from COVID-19, but that it is “still in a state of flux” in terms of what will be accepted and what facility rules are.

When asked if other districts in Cony’s sports conference have chosen to mandate pool testing, Millett said a few have decided to move forward with it. Other school districts are still in the process of finalizing winter sports plans and will likely do so this week at board meetings.

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