With winter approaching and COVID-19 cases remaining high in Maine, schools around the state are evaluating protocols for indoor sports and activities, with some adding additional precautions to keep students safe.

On Monday, Portland Public Schools notified students, families and staff of new protocols including a requirement that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19 or participate in pooled testing in order to take part in winter co-curricular activities.

The decision comes a few weeks after the Augusta Board of Education voted to mandate pooled testing for all of that district’s winter athletes. Mt. Blue Regional School District in Farmington also has put in place a similar policy for its student athletes, following a vote by the district’s school committee last week.

For the most part, decisions about COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing masks or requiring participation in pooled testing, for sports and extracurricular activities are being made by individual school districts, although there is some state guidance available. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also continues to recommend masks be worn indoors in all public places in areas of substantial or high transmission.

In mid-November, a consortium of school-based organizations, including the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school athletics, issued winter sports guidelines that “strongly recommended” all school staff and students that are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities be vaccinated. They also recommended that all schools participate in pooled testing, and that all students and staff, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors.

“We really felt with some minor local adjustments that there was a general agreement of how that could be implemented, knowing full well that come tourney time there would be implications with requirements set by venues,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and the MSSA.

Bailey noted that unlike the governor, who can issue an executive order, organizations like the MSSA and MPA do not have the authority to mandate COVID protocols, including requiring vaccinations or participation in pool testing.

“It really does rest within the locally determining body” to make that type of decision. “This is what our best thinking is and these are our recommendations,” Bailey said.

In Portland, the school district said its decision to require pooled testing for unvaccinated students who participate in co-curricular activities is aimed at trying to keep students in school and avoid quarantine if they have an exposure to COVID. There are a few reasons why the requirement is aimed specifically at extracurricular activities and sports, said Tess Nacelewicz, the district’s communications coordinator.

“One is that extracurriculars by definition are extra … not the core instructional day … so we are putting these requirements in place to add other precautions with these exposures and to prevent students from missing school if they are exposed,” Nacelewicz said in an email. “In short, we don’t want kids missing their core school day because of exposures in extracurriculars.”

Deering High School’s basketball’s head coach Todd Wing talks to his players after the first quarter during a scrimmage against Greely in Cumberland on Wednesday. For the most part, decisions about COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing masks, for extracurricular activities are being made by individual school districts.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In addition, if the extracurricular is a sport, it would typically put students in closer contact than they’d experience during the instructional school day. “Direct contact makes a person a close contact, which again is why we want the increased safety measures and for all kids to be able to meet at least one of the quarantine exemption criteria,” Nacelewicz said.

The district said Monday that its teams would not compete against any teams from schools that do not require masks for their participants. If that situation were to arise, Nacelewicz said the Portland schools would forfeit the game. The district also clarified on Wednesday that unvaccinated athletes and performers do not need to sit out until January, when pooled testing for high school students is expected to be available.

“We are expecting that (by) January that all athletes/performers are either vaccinated or signed up for pooled testing,” Nacelewicz said. “If they don’t meet those requirements by then, they would not continue to participate. The main purpose of the expectation is to reduce the potential for quarantines and missed school for students based on this additional exposure.”

Some other school districts are making similar decisions. Last week the Mt. Blue Board of Directors voted to require students to participate in pooled testing in order to play interscholastic sports this winter.

NO PUSHBACK AT MT. BLUE

Chad Brackett, the athletic director at Mt. Blue High, said there has been no pushback to the school board’s decision. At most, students and families had questions as to how the test works, but nobody opted out of participating this winter, Brackett said.

In a typical winter sports season, Mt. Blue has approximately 150 students take part in sports, which includes boys’ and girls’ basketball, Alpine and Nordic skiing, wrestling and competitive cheerleading. Two Mt. Blue students also compete on a cooperative ice hockey team with Cony High in Augusta.

“We had a lot of kids already taking part in school pool testing, which began in the fall,” Brackett said.

The Augusta school board is also requiring athletes to take part in pooled testing this winter.

Deering High School students watch their team play in a pre-season scrimmage against Greely High School in Cumberland on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cony High boys’ basketball coach TJ Maines said the pooled-testing requirement already is proving its worth. On Saturday, Cony hosted a series of preseason games. Monday, the school was informed that a player on one of those visiting teams had tested positive for COVID-19, and was likely positive when he played.

“Because we are doing pool testing, we did not need to sit (players) out. We could practice as normal and be on our way,” Maines said. “The process is not invasive and is the least that athletes should do to be on the team.”

In Portland, Deering High boys’ basketball coach Todd Wing hopes the district’s policies will limit the number of students who end up in quarantine. “Last year I think we had two full-team quarantines,” Wing said. “That was the early stages of vaccination and student-athletes weren’t eligible.

“At this point, I’m not aware of who is and who is not vaccinated and that’s a privacy thing,” Wing added. “I would assume that if we’re doing pooled testing, we might have less quarantined but we might have more positives.”

SUPPORT FROM SOME STUDENTS

Student-athletes in Portland said Wednesday they largely support the requirement to get vaccinated or participate in pooled testing this winter. Wearing a mask on the basketball court or running laps on an indoor track can be uncomfortable, but students said they would be willing if it means they can have a season and stay safe. Portland’s protocols say all student participants, staff and spectators will be required to wear masks at indoor games, rehearsals, practices and performances this winter.

“Masks and stuff don’t really bother me,” said Miles Hibbard, a sophomore on the junior varsity basketball team at Deering. “They’re kind of in the way during practice, but in practice coaches aren’t that strict. … In games, I think they’ll be more strict about it so I think it will be a little harder to get used to.”

Hibbard, who is vaccinated, said the requirement to get vaccinated or participate in pooled testing is something he supports. “In order to play, most kids would do it,” he said.

Vaughn Howard, a senior on the indoor track team at Deering, said he also supports the vaccinate-or-test policy. “The more people get vaccinated the less likely we’ll get shut down or not be able to run in the first place, so I think it’s a good thing,” Howard said.

Christianne Shadidi, a freshman on the JV cheerleading squad at Deering, said she isn’t vaccinated and doesn’t like the idea of having to get regularly tested for COVID-19, though she would do it so she could keep cheering.

“I think it would be better to get vaccinated because why would you want to keep getting tested for COVID over and over and over again?” Shadidi said. “I feel like it will get tiring. Or they probably want to do that so people just get vaccinated because they will probably get tired of getting tested.”

According to state data, 511 of the 710 public and private K-12 schools eligible for pooled testing in Maine were participating as of Nov. 12. Pooled testing is free to participating districts and is being paid for by the state, but some schools have been hesitant due to lack of interest from families or concerns about the staffing needed to run testing. However, those who have signed up have found they may be able to adjust other protocols with the added layer of safety that testing offers.

WIDELY USED

The Yarmouth School District, which has pooled testing at all four of its schools, has devised COVID protocols that give athletes and performers a seven-step path to removing masks during co-curricular activities. Masks continue to be required during the regular school day.

“There was definitely some push from members of the school committee to find a way to make (masks) optional for extracurricular activities,” Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said. “I think we put as tight a parameter around it as we could.”

The key steps for being able to remove a mask is for the student to be both vaccinated and participating in the school’s pooled testing. Dolloff said currently about 1,400 of the district’s 1,700 students and staff participate in pool testing.

Before a mask can be removed, the student must be symptom-free and not a close contact of a positive COVID case for 10 days. They must also be actively engaged in the activity, not on the bench or backstage; be in a facility that does not require masks; and the school they are competing against must allow their own students to participate without a mask. Finally, there must be no positive cases within the team or group in the previous 10 days.

Dolloff said he recognizes that, when it comes to athletics, Yarmouth will be wearing a mask in most if not all contests because opposing teams will be wearing masks. Further, the MPA has stated that, as of now, masks will be required at postseason tournaments. But he said the policy has also led to a “rapid increase” in participation in pooled testing.

“The push was to provide a way for students to compete or participate in extracurriculars without always having a mask on but we also wanted to do it to encourage vaccination and pool testing and I think we’re seeing that now,” Dolloff said.

Staff Writer Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this report.

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