As winter approaches and the number of COVID-19 cases in Maine remains high, schools across the state are evaluating protocols for indoor sports and activities, with some taking extra precautions to ensure student safety.
On Monday, Portland’s public schools notified students, families and staff of new protocols, including requiring all students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or participate in pooled testing to participate 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 has also introduced a similar policy for its student athletes, following a vote by the district’s school board last week.
For the most part, decisions about COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing masks or participating in pooled testing, for sports and extracurricular activities are made by individual school districts, although some government guidance is available. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also continues to recommend wearing masks indoors in all public places in areas of significant 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 requiring all school personnel and students eligible to participate in extracurricular activities. be vaccinated. They also recommended that all schools participate in pooled testing and that all students and staff, vaccinated or unvaccinated, wear masks indoors.
“We really felt with some minor local adjustments that there was a general agreement on how that could be implemented, knowing full well that by the time of the tournament there would be an impact on the requirements set by the 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 power to mandate COVID protocols, including mandating vaccinations or participating in pool tests.
“It’s really up to the local governing body” to make those kinds of decisions. “This is what we think best and these are our recommendations,” Bailey said.
In Portland, the school district said the decision to require pooled testing for unvaccinated students who participate in co-curricular activities is intended to keep students in school and avoid quarantine if they are exposed to COVID. There are a few reasons why the requirement specifically targets extracurricular activities and sports, said Tess Nacelewicz, the district’s communications coordinator.
“One is that extracurricular activities are by definition extra…not the main day of class…so we are creating these requirements to add other precautions to these exposures and to prevent students from missing school if they are exposed, Nacelewicz said in an email. “Basically, we don’t want kids to miss their school day because of exposure to extracurricular activities.”
In addition, if extracurricular activities are a sport, it would typically bring students closer together than they would experience during the educational school day. “Direct contact makes a person a close contact, which is why we want the increased security measures and that all children can meet at least one of the quarantine exemption criteria,” Nacelewicz said.
The district said Monday that its teams would not compete against teams from schools that do not require masks for their participants. If that situation happened, Nacelewicz said the Portland schools would lose the game. The district also clarified on Wednesday that unvaccinated athletes and performers will not be required to sit outside until January, when pooled tests for high school students are expected to be available.
“We expect that (by) January all athletes/performers have been vaccinated or signed up for pooled testing,” Nacelewicz said. “If they don’t meet those requirements by then, they won’t continue to participate. The main purpose of the expectation is to reduce the risk of quarantine and missed school for students based on this additional exposure.”
Some other school districts make similar decisions. Last week, the Mt. Blue Board of Directors voted to require students to participate in pooled tests to be able to play interscholastic sports this winter.
NO PUSHBACK AT MT. BLUE
Chad Brackett, Mount Blue High’s athletic director, said there is no opposition to the school board’s decision. At the most, students and families had questions about how the test works, but no one has opted out of participating this winter, Brackett said.
In a typical winter sports season, Mount Blue has about 150 students who participate in sports, including boys’ and girls’ basketball, downhill and cross-country skiing, wrestling, and competitive cheerleading. Two Mt Blue students also compete on a cooperative ice hockey team with Cony High in Augusta.
“We already had a lot of kids participating in school pool testing, starting in the fall,” Brackett said.
The Augusta school board also requires athletes to participate in pooled tests this winter.
Cony High boys basketball coach TJ Maines said the pooled testing requirement is already proving its worth. On Saturday, Cony hosted a series of preseason games. On Monday, the school was informed that a player from one of those visiting teams had tested positive for COVID-19 and was likely positive when he played.
“Because we do pool testing, we (players) didn’t have to sit outside. We could just practice and be on our way,” Maines said. “The process is not invasive and is the least athletes have to do to be part of the team.”
In Portland, boys basketball coach Todd Wing of Deering High hopes district policies will limit the number of students entering quarantine. “Last year I think we had two quarantines for the whole team,” Wing said. “That was the early stages of vaccination and student-athletes were not eligible.
“Right now I don’t know who has and who hasn’t been vaccinated and that’s a privacy issue,” Wing added. “I assume if we do pooled testing, maybe we’ll be in quarantine less, but maybe more positives.”
SUPPORT FROM SOME STUDENTS
Portland student athletes said on Wednesday they largely support the requirement to get vaccinated or participate in pooled tests this winter. Wearing a mask on the basketball court or running laps on an indoor track can be uncomfortable, but students said they’d be willing if it means they can have a season and stay safe. Portland protocols will require all students, staff and spectators to wear masks during indoor games, rehearsals, practices and performances this winter.
“Masks and stuff doesn’t really bother me,” said Miles Hibbard, a sophomore on Deering’s junior varsity basketball team. “They get in the way a bit during training, but in practice, coaches are not that strict. … In games, I think they’re going to be stricter about it, so I think it’s going to be a little harder to get used to.”
Hibbard, who has been vaccinated, said the requirement to get vaccinated or participate in pooled tests is something he supports. “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 vaccin-or-test policy. “The more people are vaccinated, the less likely we are to be shut down or not be able to run, so I think it’s a good thing,” Howard said.
Christianne Shadidi, a freshman on the JV cheerleading team at Deering, said she hasn’t been vaccinated and doesn’t like the idea of getting tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis, although she would do it so she could keep cheering.
“I think it’s better to get vaccinated because why would you want to be tested for COVID over and over again?” said Shadidi. “I have a feeling it will get tiring. Or they probably want to do that so people just get vaccinated, because they’re probably going to get tired of the testing.”
According to state data, 511 of the 710 public and private K-12 schools eligible for pooled testing in Maine took part as of Nov. 12. Pooled testing is free to participating districts and paid for by the state, but some schools have been hesitant due to lack of interest from families or concerns about the staff needed to conduct testing. However, those who have signed up have found that they may be able to adapt other protocols with the added layer of security that testing provides.
The Yarmouth School District, which has pooled tests at all four schools, has established COVID protocols that provide a seven-step path for athletes and performers to remove masks during co-curricular activities. Face masks remain mandatory during the regular school day.
“There was certainly some pressure from school committee members to find a way to make (masks) optional for extracurricular activities,” said Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. “I think we have put as tight a parameter around it as possible.”
The most important steps to be able to remove a mask are for the student to both be vaccinated and participate in the school’s pooled tests. Dolloff said about 1,400 of the district’s 1,700 students and staff are currently taking pool tests.
Before a mask can be removed, the student must be symptom-free for 10 days and must not have had close contact with a positive COVID case. They should also be actively involved in the activity, not on the couch or backstage; being in a facility that does not require masks; and the school they are fighting against must allow their own students to participate without masks. Finally, there should be no positive cases within the team or group in the past 10 days.
Dolloff said he recognizes that when it comes to athletics, Yarmouth will wear masks in most, if not all games, because opposing teams will wear masks. Furthermore, the MPA has stated that from now on, masks will be mandatory at post-season 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 extracurricular activities without always wearing a mask, but we also wanted to do it to encourage vaccination and pool testing and I think we’re seeing that now, said Dolloff.
Staff Writer Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this report.