ELLSWORTH — Stands packed with cheering parents and fans, student athletes breathing freely and a traditional winter sports season. That is what the parents, students, coaches and community members who spoke, pleaded, applauded and cried at a Nov. 9 School Board meeting want this winter.
“Let the fans in and let the masks go,” sophomore Miles Palmer read on behalf of varsity basketball team captain Hunter Curtis, who was under quarantine for a COVID-19 exposure.
Palmer was one of roughly a dozen students, recent alumni, parents and coaches who gave public comments. Board members had shortened the agenda and moved the meeting from council chambers to the high school gym to accommodate an anticipated heavy attendance.
Apart from an outburst at the mic by Gwen Clark, who directed disparaging remarks to two board members and was cut short, civil discourse reigned.
Clark has previously clashed with the board. She has claimed a violation of her First Amendment rights as plaintiff in a lawsuit levied against the School Board and board Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor Sept. 1.
The board and Superintendent Dan Higgins empathized with those who spoke and Higgins said superintendents state-wide are in dialogue with the Maine Principals’ Association, the governing body for school sports.
Officials stressed that a final decision had not been made locally, while Higgins said despite the number of positive COVID-19 cases at the schools, “there is no evidence of community transmission in schools.”
“The intent is to have a season and have it safely … and keep our schools open,” he said.
Parents who spoke said they were fine with a mask requirement for spectators.
Community transmission of COVID-19 remains high in Hancock County, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of last Thursday, EHS had reported 5 cases in the prior 30 days and Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School had reported 33 cases, according to the Maine Department of Education.
While the MPA has not yet finalized its guidelines for winter sports, Higgins noted that some venues, such as those at University of Maine and in Portland, require vaccination to participate or attend events.
However, board member Elizabeth Alteri announced that an earlier MPA decision requiring a COVID-19 vaccination for wrestlers had been rolled back earlier that day and is still undecided.
Last year, the wrestling season never happened, and 2021 graduate Matt Reid spoke of the pain of watching other winter sports teams have a season last year while he sat out.
“I felt like the school and the whole School Board didn’t support me,” said Reid, who was 18 wins short of his milestone 100th.
With middle school winter sports just underway, although the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School was closed the day of the board meeting because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and the high school season about to begin, board members said they will make their decision in an emergency meeting either Nov. 18 or 24.
“We want our Eagle family together,” parent Shannon Curtis said. “You, the School Board, hold the keys to our gymnasium.”
The question of allowing use of the gym by non-affiliated sports teams was also raised. Policy adopted before the school year started restricts public use of school facilities, but board members had some ideas. One was to hire coaches for those teams as substitute custodians, who would then clean the gym after use.
The board also welcomed new member Tara Young and approved retaining Kelly McKenney as chairwoman and Miller as vice chairwoman, with no competing nominations. Officers are nominated each year following the school board’s November elections, which were particularly fraught this year for two open seats. A Nov. 8 recount confirmed Miller’s narrow win over challenger Casey Hardwick.