ELLSWORTH — The contests will take place; that much is certain. What’s still unclear is what it’s going to look and feel like in Maine’s gymnasiums, pool areas and field houses.
The scenes this year won’t be anything like the darkness of last winter, when high school athletic competitions were held behind closed doors with no end-of-season state championship events. Yet even as much of the joy that was missing 10 months ago returns, there are issues to be addressed before the 2021-22 season’s first practices, games and meets are held in the coming weeks.
Questions regarding spectator policies, masks and other participation requirements remain as athletes participating in basketball, wrestling, swim and dive, cheer and indoor track get set to begin practices Monday, Nov. 22. With no statewide guidance in place, school districts are hammering out their own policies ahead of a season that, though steering more toward normalcy, will still be met with challenges.
From school board meetings to dinner-table discussions to hallway chatter, there is much being said these days about whether masking will be in place this winter — and, if so, for whom. As was evident last week in Ellsworth and recently in other school districts across the state, plenty of impassioned arguments have been made for and against masking.
Amongst administrators, though, a consensus seems to be emerging: Masks will be worn by all at winter sporting events. That includes fans, officials, coaches, athletes on benches or in waiting areas and even those actively engaged in competition.
“Ninety-five percent of superintendents in the state of Maine want universal masking,” said Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow. “From my understanding, all of the Hancock County superintendents are saying that everybody is going to be wearing a mask. If schools we play against are not wearing masks, then we will not be going there.”
As noted, the Maine Principals’ Association is no longer bound by state-issued guidelines dictating what sports may be offered and what protocols are to be put in place. Such guidelines, which last year mandated universal masking, prohibited spectators, forbade wrestling, forced swim and cheer to go virtual and altered postseason play, were formally retired in May.
Some players and coaches, though, can already see the writing on the wall. Even with the MPA not receiving marching orders from state agencies this year, there is a prevailing feeling of resignation to the idea that masks will be required to be worn in most, if not all, facilities.
“We’re going to have universal masking,” said Larry Deans, head coach of the Bucksport boys’ basketball team. “That’s just the way it’s going to be. The PVC, and it’s not official yet, but my understanding is that they’re going to recommend masking because, when you go to the Cross Center, it’s going to be required there.”
Originally, the MPA Sports Medicine Committee had supported a vaccine mandate for wrestling, which was not offered last year as the sport was classified as “high-risk” under the state’s community sports guidelines. Yet after receiving significant community backlash, the committee has instead recommended universal masking.
Although the MPA has backed off its first iteration of a vaccine requirement for the time being, such mandates are becoming increasingly common at the municipal, county and state levels across the country. Other places have vaccine mandates in place for all students regardless of participation in extracurricular activities.
Even if no such requirements are imposed in Maine, players, coaches and spectators will still be subject to policies at individual facilities. The Portland Expo, for example, is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for admission, and it remains a possibility that other venues will choose to enact similar policies.
“As I’ve told my kids, one of the things that concerns me is, what if the Cross Center turns around at some point in the year and demands vaccines?” Deans said. “They don’t have that right now, but it’s something we have to be thinking about.”
School districts must also decide how they wish to approach building capacities this winter. Raucous crowds are common at many Maine high school sporting events, and between packed bleachers and the poor ventilation systems that exist in many gymnasiums and pool areas, conditions are often ripe for COVID-19 to thrive.
MDI, Dow said, has no attendance restrictions at the moment and will be welcoming its beloved band back to the Bunny Parady Gymnasium bleachers this winter. The school plans to offer concessions, though food and drinks may not be brought into the gym area.
Bucksport, Deans said, is looking at allowing 75 percent capacity at basketball games this winter. Ellsworth has yet to establish formal guidelines on fan attendance, though Athletic Director Josh Frost is certainly wary of what the gymnasium environment might look like at some of the school’s big-time basketball tilts.
“At the end of the day, we’re probably not ready for a sold-out Ellsworth-MDI crowd, so will our capacity have to be limited to a certain amount?” Frost said. “Our gym holds 950 people in the bleachers, and that’s obviously shoulder to shoulder. I don’t think we’re ready for that number of people in the gym just yet.”
Scheduling-wise, overnight trips, such as the Ellsworth and MDI basketball teams’ two-day adventures to Caribou and Presque Isle and vice versa, have largely been eliminated this year. Schools such as Bucksport, which has moved from Class C to Class B in basketball, will be up against new slates of opponents after two years’ worth of classification shuffling.
Additionally, the wrestling schedule could be affected by a major officiating shortage. The sport currently has just 13 officials available throughout the entire state, which has forced schools to be more flexible in scheduling midweek wrestling meets.
“We usually just do meets Wednesday and Saturday, but now we’re going Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday,” Dow said. “We’ve also lowered the number of teams participating in a match. We’ve got to do what we can to help alleviate some of that pressure on the officials.”
For the most part, though, schedules have made a return to normalcy after schools were limited to regional pod play last winter. Eighteen-game basketball slates and tournament dates are set; indoor track will return to the University of Maine; swim and cheer meets will be held in person; midweek and weekend wrestling competitions are set to go forward throughout the winter.
“Scheduling-wise, I think we’re in a pretty good spot,” Frost said. “Maybe you don’t get all 18 basketball games in or have to miss out on a Wednesday wrestling meet [because of quarantines], but other than that, I think you’re going to see a normal winter sports season from a scheduling perspective.”
Missing games as a result of COVID-19 issues, though, will be less of an issue at schools with higher vaccination rates. Dow attributed a successful fall season at MDI, where only one football game and two boys’ soccer games were lost to the virus, to a vaccination rate of greater than 90 percent among students taking part in extracurricular activities.
“If you count the fall musical and our athletes, that’s around 240 students that participated; I think there were between 19 and 23 who were not vaccinated,” Dow said. “That helped us have a great fall season, and I anticipate the same for the winter.”