ELLSWORTH — With an emphasis on a return to normalcy, the School Board approved a winter sports policy Nov. 18. The guidelines strike a balance between health precautions and the desire for a traditional sports and performing arts season.
“One of your goals as a board is making sure schools stay open,” Superintendent Dan Higgins prefaced the board discussion, “and provide normalcy in what we provide. Obviously, our winter sports and co- and extracurricular activities are a part of that.”
Student athletes, musicians and performers will not be required to wear masks during active participation if they enroll in pool testing for COVID-19 at the middle and high schools, the board ruled. This requirement is regardless of vaccination status.
However, all other people involved in winter sports and other co- and extracurricular activities — coaches, spectators, referees, concessionaires — must wear masks at all times.
Wrestlers face the same requirements as those for other winter sports, after the Maine Principals’ Association rolled back a proposed vaccine requirement for participation.
“I don’t think doing the pool testing is too much to ask,” said Joel Horne, former wrestling coach and parent to a wrestler. “I really appreciate it.”
Wrestlers lost the full 2020-21 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic while other winter sports continued with strict precautions.
Gym capacity is yet to be determined, as is the allocation of tickets to get fans inside the games and shows. However, for sports games, fans of both teams will be permitted to attend.
For concessions, cleaning is a concern, especially between games on the same day. Administrators in each building will decide on concessions based on whether the cafeteria is free and cleaning is available. Concessions will not be allowed inside the gym and must be kept separate from the game or show and crowds.
The pep band and sideline cheerleaders will return to cheer on the home team — wearing masks, except for when playing a brass or woodwind instrument for musicians or when cheerleaders are cheering.
And when playing schools with stricter policies in place, specifically wearing masks during active play, Ellsworth will follow their lead. This follows recommendations from the Penobscot Valley Conference. Currently, Regional School Unit 25 (Bucksport) and Mount Desert Island Regional School System have both approved winter sports policies requiring masks during active participation.
The policy also includes a strong recommendation that all participants in extracurricular and cocurricular activities receive vaccinations against COVID-19.
The approval was 4-1, with Tara Young voting against the measure. In discussion, she split from the board by wanting unvaccinated students to wear masks during active participation regardless of pool testing.
“As conditions change moving forward, what you decide tonight can change,” Higgins noted to the board.
Board members worked off general recommendations crafted by the district’s administrative team, but their decision broke with those recommendations when it came to masks during active play. Higgins noted not all administrators agreed on the recommendations. The approved policy also broke with the Maine Principals’ Association’s strong recommendations for universal mask wearing while indoors.
A board discussion on winter sports nine days earlier drew dozens of parents and community members to the high school gym to urge for a sports season with all the trimmings: fans, cheerleaders, pep band and concession — and no masks required for students while actively participating. The Nov. 18 meeting drew just a handful of public participants. However, 264 views of the Facebook livestream were evident by the next morning.
Kelli Casey requested the board move public comments until after the board had its discussion on the winter sports policy to allow comments to reflect the board’s discussion. After hesitation, board members unanimously agreed.
But after the discussion, just a few comments came forth.
Amy Atherton said she was “a huge proponent of masking,” but she really liked the option of pool testing in lieu of wearing a mask while playing.
“If they opt out of pool testing, can they change their minds?” parent Shannon Curtis asked.
Higgins said yes.
The board opted not to follow Young’s proposed amendment to the policy that would give coaches discretion to require masks at practices to better prepare them for games against teams that require universal masking.
“As divisive as the mask issue can be, I’d have a hard time putting our coaches in that position,” Higgins said.
The board also unanimously approved expanding BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests for athletes prior to attending track meets at University of Maine at Orono, which requires a negative test or proof of vaccine to participate, if enough supplies are available.
And, so the high school’s Theater of the Mad Jesters may perform its fall musical Thanksgiving weekend without masks, those students will also receive COVID-19 tests, as there is not time for pool testing before the performance. (Pool tests, normally given on Tuesdays, are not available by the company providing them Thanksgiving week.)
The only voice of public dissent came from the father of a cheerleader, Tim Bland, who said that while he was encouraged by the board discussion, “I think the science of masks is interesting at best. There’s been sporting events all over this country where people are not wearing masks and [there are] no outbreaks.”