A day after being released from enforced “yellow” inactivity, high school athletic programs in southern Maine on Thursday began sorting out exactly how to resume activities.

With that decision-making power now clearly shifted into each school district’s lap, the immediate responses were predictably varied.

“We’re going to go full blast. We’re excited to get started,” said Jeff Ramich, the athletic director at Brunswick High, which held organizational meetings Thursday and will start practices Friday. “We do intend to play games and we are going to hopefully start playing games the first week of February.”

Four counties are currently labeled yellow in the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded health advisory system for schools during the coronavirus pandemic: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York.

Since the start of the school year, schools in yellow counties had been told they had to shut down all in-person extra-curricular activities. In recent weeks, school leaders have emphasized that no activity at all is damaging to students’ emotional and mental well-being.

On Wednesday night, the Maine Principals’ Association announced that color designations will no longer apply to after-school activities, opening the door not only to practices but even interscholastic games for schools in “yellow” counties.

Schools in Maine’s 12 “green” counties have been allowed to have full practices since Jan. 4 and play games since Jan. 11. The regular season is scheduled to end Feb. 27, with additional time the first two weeks of March for regionalized postseason competition. No state championships will be held, except a virtual cheerleading state meet and possibly a virtual swimming state meet.

Old Orchard Beach and Sacopee Valley started practicing Thursday. Bonny Eagle, Cheverus, Greely, Yarmouth and York announced they plan to start activities on Monday.

South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston said he anticipates starting practices on Monday. Several other school districts, including Portland and Deering, Biddeford, Noble, Sanford and Thornton Academy, said decisions would be forthcoming.

Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton Academy, said even though schools in yellow counties have been preparing for a return to practice and play, it takes time to get going.

“This is a very complex issue,” he said. “I think a lot of folks feel it’s like turning on the light when you enter a room. You press the button and you’re back in action. There are a lot of layers to go through.”

Some administrators were surprised that Wednesday’s announcement allowed for full practices and games, rather than just skills-based workouts.

“We were surprised to see that games and the length of preseason were also decisions left to individual school districts,” said Sanford Superintendent Matt Nelson. “I was under the impression that the intent was to get our students together safely in more of a skills and drills format to align better with current protocols in place during the school day and make it more of an extension of the school day.”

Nelson said in a letter to the Sanford school community that “we are collecting information and evaluating options” before making a decision, adding that if Sanford elected to go forward, no activities would take place until the district’s schools return to hybrid in-person learning, scheduled for Monday.

Portland Public Schools issued a statement regarding athletics at Portland and Deering: “Since we found out about the MPA decision, we have been in consultation with our athletic directors, principals and other stakeholders to determine when and how we resume practices. We have not yet made a decision but expect to do so by early next week, and will inform our athletes and families then.”

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said he wanted to see updated guidance from the Maine CDC, the governor’s office, or the Departments of Health and Human Services or DOE to ensure “full compliance.”

At Thursday’s COVID-19 press briefing, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said, “the MPA decided to remove that requirement that no school sports occur in those counties that are yellow, leaving those decisions, alongside those for in-person learning, to school leadership.”

Lambrew emphasized that what has not changed are the safety protocols – mask wearing, no statewide competition, maintaining social distancing, and in-person gathering limits – for holding an athletic event.

“What has changed is aligning decisions about school sports with decisions about school in-person learning at the local level,” Lambrew said.

While many schools were still formulating their return-to-practice plans, Old Orchard Beach jumped right in on Thursday with skills-and-drills practices for their basketball teams. The girls’ basketball team had five players in quarantine until Friday, but Coach Dean Plante, also the athletic director, wanted to get started.

“We’re looking forward to it,” he said.

John Suttie, the principal at Old Orchard Beach High and the RSU 23 superintendent, said the school’s music director was waiting for him at his office door Thursday morning, asking when he could get started.

“We’re going to find ways,” said Suttie. “We’re going to approach it this way: If we have stops and starts, so be it. I think this is a noble pursuit to make some sort of effort to allow (the students) to do the things they love to do, especially given the data. That’s what is driving my decision making now.”

Sacopee Valley was another small school that didn’t waste time, holding girls’ basketball, boys’ basketball and cheering practices on Thursday.

Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said the Clippers will take a measured approach to the start of practices, beginning with cohorts “for the first week and evaluate where we are at that point.”

He continued, “While I’m in favor of having kids participate, I’m not opposed to placing restrictions on how far we take that while community spread is present. If we limit it to school-based practices while we’re classified as yellow, I can support that. Or it may be that schools compete with others only if they have no cases of the virus in the school. Any options like that are worth considering, and we’ll take a look at them over the next week or so as we develop a plan moving forward.”

Gordie Salls, the athletic director at Sanford, said it is important that schools are united in their plans.

“I’m speaking for people that have been yellow for a while,” he said, referring to the DOE’s color-coded system. “Yellow has been red (for sports) forever. And there has to be a uniformed start to all this in how long you go before you play games and those types of things. ”

Salls expects to begin practices on Monday.

“This all came fairly sudden,” said Dennis Walton, the athletic director at Biddeford. “As news came out (that) this will be a local decision, that means a lot of people are involved. That’s going to take a couple days’ time” to have those discussions.

Walton said he hopes to have a clear plan prior to a school committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

At South Portland, “our plan will be to play games,” Livingston said.

Livingston suggested it could be prudent to build in a two-week practice period because, “even though we haven’t seen any transmission through sports, just getting through a period of time where we can feel good that everything is operating safely.”

York will also begin skills-and-drills workouts on Monday. The Wildcats only allowed socially distanced practices in the fall for their teams, while other neighboring York County schools played games.

Superintendent Lou Goscinski said officials will monitor COVID-19 conditions closely.

“We know that community spread of COVID-19 is on the rise and York County has the highest rolling average of cases of COVID-19 in the state of Maine,” he said in a press release. “However, because of our success in mitigating the spread of the virus in our schools and the fact the Maine CDC has reported it is not seeing significant spread in Maine schools, we will cautiously roll out in-person athletics and other student activities.”

Goscinski did not make any specific mention of playing games in his release.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.