Hampered by COVID restrictions, Maine’s high school athletes did not get a normal winter season last year. Some of them didn’t get a season at all.

High school wrestlers take part in a conference championship at Cony High School in Augusta in 2018. Schools are waiting to hear about COVID-related winter sports guidelines from the Maine Principals’ Association. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

So as teams get ready to start practice, let’s be grateful that we have the tools to give student-athletes and their communities a safe, almost-normal season, even as the games move indoors amid a record spike in COVID cases.

And let’s show that gratitude by using every one of those tools.

A year ago, Maine high school basketball and ice hockey games were held without spectators and with players, coaches and officials in masks. The entire wrestling season was canceled over concerns of viral transmission. The indoor track season and the swimming state championships were lost, too, after COVID forced colleges to close their venues.

COVID is still with us a year later, in many ways worse than before. New daily cases are at all-time highs, as are hospitalizations.

But in other ways, Maine is better prepared. The state has one of the highest vaccinations rates in the country, and the presence of vaccines, along with face coverings and robust testing, should be enough to allow all high school winter sports to move forward with spectators, even if limited.

Schools are waiting to hear about COVID-related winter sports guidelines from the Maine Principals’ Association, which, in turn, says it is awaiting guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Final word on how games will be conducted is expected any day.

Many schools aren’t waiting. The Augusta Board of Education recently voted to require that all student-athletes take part in a pooled testing program, in which swabs from groups of people are tested all at once at regular intervals in order to catch cases before they spread.

All players will have to wear masks during competition and on the sidelines, as will coaches and officials, as well as spectators, whose number will be limited.

The plan adopted by Augusta schools, and similar ones being approved across the state, strike a good balance between allowing the games to go forward and keeping students and the greater community safe.

The rules coming from the state and the MPA should follow along the same lines. With community spread at an all-time high, particularly in areas of the state where vaccination rates remain low, schools should not be allowed to cut corners with safety.

Many players will run into strict COVID policies anyway. Some venues used by high schools are more stringent: The Cross Center in Bangor requires masks, for example, while players at the Portland Expo either have to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

Anything less than a strong statewide COVID policy for winter high school sports will only make it harder for student-athletes to return to something approaching normal.

Allowing individual schools to choose whether to require masks or regular testing would only allow those that don’t take COVID seriously enough to dictate the terms. It would lead to games played under less-than-safe conditions. It would make it more likely for cases to spread through schools, causing quarantines that put everyone’s season at risk – not to mention the community as a whole.

Knowing all we know now, that doesn’t need to happen. With masks, vaccinations and regular testing, Maine can give its high school athletes the winter season they missed last year.


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