In this February 2020 photo, Fort Fairfield's Kadin Barnes (left) tries to maintain control of the ball against George Stevens Academy's Teague Smallidge during a Class C North basketball quarterfinal at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Schools are gearing up for the expected start of a shortened winter season. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Fort Fairfield is scheduled to host Easton in a season-opening boys basketball game next Monday.

But as of Tuesday afternoon, the Fort Fairfield school district was under a self-imposed “code red” mandating remote learning due to COVID-19 concerns in the area. And remote learning during the day means no extracurricular activities.

“I talked with my superintendent [Tuesday] and he’s hoping we’ll be green on Monday but he won’t know for the next couple of days,” Fort Fairfield High School athletic administrator Tim Watt said.

Schools in 12 of the state’s 16 counties finally began formal basketball practices this week — 1 1/2 months later than usual — and schedules are in place for teams to start playing a maximum of 12 regular-season games beginning next week.

The tournament has been canceled, leaving only the possibility of playoffs within regional pods once the regular season concludes on Feb. 27.

Teams in most cases have been assigned to geographic groups that will allow them to play opponents from their county or an adjacent county.

“We would play whoever we could as long as we get to play this year,” Hermon athletic administrator Rick Sinclair said. “Certainly the kids will be competitive when they’re between the lines, but at the end of the day it’s really just trying to take advantage of an opportunity to get to play.”

Schools in four southern Maine counties — York, Oxford, Cumberland and Androscoggin — are coded yellow under guidelines for in-person instruction developed by the state Department of Education. Teams at schools in those counties may not practice or play games until the county is restored to green.

Fort Fairfield players had been active in Maine Principals’ Association-approved conditioning workouts since before the holiday break and on Monday were scheduled to begin tryouts.

“The difficulty we’ll have is all they’ve done is skills and conditioning, where this week we would have been putting plays and everything else in,” Watt said. “We’ll just have to adjust.”

Other northern and eastern Maine leagues are working their way into the abbreviated basketball season more deliberately after formal practices were postponed from Dec. 14 to Jan. 4.

Most of the largest schools in the Bangor area and members of the Penobscot Valley Conference Class B ranks won’t play games until Jan. 19.

The 11-school PVC A-B pod is similar to that set up during soccer season. Class AA Bangor and Class A Brewer and Hampden Academy have shifted from the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference to the PVC in basketball for geographic convenience.

They join Class B Ellsworth, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft, Hermon, John Bapst of Bangor, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor — which also is sidelined while remote learning — Old Town, Orono and Washington Academy of East Machias.

While most games will be within the pod, some are scheduled against nearby KVAC schools. Nokomis of Newport will play eight games against PVC foes, while Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield will play four contests against PVC rivals. Washington Academy is scheduled for nonconference games against Washington County neighbor Jonesport-Beals.

“This year the idea is to get some games in while playing locally and doing as much as we can to have a season and be safe,” Sinclair said. “There are a lot of philosophies out there. Some want the competitive situation and others want to base it on geography so we tried as best as we could to accommodate both parties.”

Twenty-two schools in PVC Classes C and D have been divided into four pods for the basketball season.

Bucksport, George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Searsport, Deer Isle-Stonington and Sumner of East Sullivan comprise the Coastal pod, while Calais, Woodland, Shead of Eastport, Machias, Jonesport-Beals and Narraguagus of Harrington make up the Down East pod.

Lee Academy, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Stearns of Millinocket, Schenck of East Millinocket, Bangor Christian and Penobscot Valley of Howland will compete in the Penobscot pod. The fourth, yet-to-be-named, pod will feature Dexter, Piscataquis of Guilford, Central of Corinth, Penquis Valley of Milo and Greenville.

No games have been scheduled in these pods before Jan. 18, and Lee Academy already has postponed its opener at Schenck on the 19th because Lee is in remote learning.

“I don’t know if we’ll even be practicing by the 13th or 14th,” Lee athletic administrator and boys basketball coach Randy Harris said. “I want to at least have the kids in the gym wearing masks for four or five practices to get used to it, so I’ve changed the game to further in the year because we’re getting such a late start.”

Aroostook County schools are sticking to a format they used for soccer last fall. They’ll remain within the county for the entire schedule, with one pod for Class D and the second for Class B and C programs.

The region’s three Class B basketball programs — Caribou, Houlton and Presque Isle — will face each other three times and play six other games against either Class C opponents or the better Class D schools.

“We had the challenge of having a lot of smaller schools and then you have the Caribous and Presque Isles and Houltons that need games,” said Watt, who is president of the Aroostook League. “Then depending on what you thought your team is going to be like, we put schedules together to make it as competitive as we could.”

Most County teams are scheduled for 12 games, though Watt said Fort Kent, Madawaska and Wisdom of Saint Agatha are in remote learning and aren’t expected to play until at least Feb. 1. Those schools presently have eight-game schedules.

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...