Madison Shields (left) of Southern Aroostook is guarded closely by Presque Isle's Jenna Sargent during the Aroostook County Championship in March of 2021. Credit: Joe Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

After a school day of strict COVID-19 safety restrictions indoors, Maine’s high school athletes burst out onto soccer fields, cross country trails and golf courses each afternoon and remove their masks. 

Even though dozens of athletes across the state have been sidelined this fall for COVID-19 exposure, the majority of Maine’s schools aren’t requiring their athletes to wear masks during practices and games.

The lax restrictions on athletics may soon change when sports move inside in November. With so many teams already affected by COVID-19 and the highly contagious delta variant making up nearly all of Maine’s COVID-19 cases, districts may require athletes to mask up if cases remain high in Maine’s schools.

“Right now, all of our issues that we’re having with the [St. John] Valley schools have to deal with sports teams and we’re playing outside without masks,” Madawaska High School Athletic Director and school nurse Lynn Wetmore said. “I am concerned with bringing an activity indoors without masks. Until the rate goes down, we’re all really vulnerable.” 

Conversations about how to handle mask rules this winter have begun to appear on the agendas of meetings between superintendents across the state, Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Director Eileen King said, though nobody has made a final decision yet. 

Like the decisions about mask mandates in classrooms at the end of August, these choices will come down to educators on a local level, King said, as they weigh the spread of the virus near their individual schools.

Last winter and well into the spring, athletes both indoors and outdoors had to wear masks and spectators were not allowed during indoor competitions. The state lifted these restrictions at the end of April when the vast majority of teams were practicing and playing outside, and haven’t reinstated them since.

But outdoor sports have been far from immune to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, which has been identified in 98 percent of COVID-19 cases in Maine this month. More than 1,400 students and educators have contracted the virus since school started this fall.

Dozens of Maine schools have had to cancel or reschedule games this fall due to COVID-19 cases and exposures, throwing competition schedules into turmoil. Some teams will miss weeks of play as their districts move to online schooling — something athletic directors are hoping to avoid going forward.

Houlton boys and girls varsity soccer teams had to cancel nine games in total when the RSU 29 school district decided to go remote for two weeks

“As far as the season goes, having this time off hurts any momentum a team has created over the first few weeks of the season and the pre-season,” Houlton Athletic Director Jon Solomon said. “Kids are kids. Some kids might work out on their own over the next two weeks and some kids might sit around and wait until they have practice again.”

COVID-19 exposures haven’t only made it more difficult for the fall sports season to play out as planned. In some places, outdoor sports have forced huge swaths of students into quarantine when even one member of the team or an opponent tests positive for the virus. 

In Bangor, roughly half of the high school’s 48-man football team was in quarantine last week after at least one player tested positive. Caribou Community School also went remote starting last Tuesday after dozens of students were exposed to the virus during recreational and middle school sports.

After going into the remote learning model, Caribou Superintendent Tim Doak said he thought it was unlikely winter sports could go forward without masks given what he’s seen so far this year. The Caribou High School soccer teams also missed several games at the start of the year while the district was in the remote learning model.

The first week of the winter sports season is in late November, and it may be some time before the districts start to make these decisions officially. 

The Maine Principals Association, which governs interscholastic sports for the state, hasn’t given out any specific guidance beyond asking schools to follow U.S. CDC and State Department of Education guidelines.

It is too early to say whether masks will be a certainty for indoor sports, and the decision would have to be made based on case numbers at a local and regional level, MPA Interscholastic Executive Director Mike Burnham said.  

“To predict [now] what the winter is going to look like two months from now is nothing but speculation,” he said. “Things are changing on a weekly basis but more often a daily basis.”

In Madawaska, 100 percent of fall athletes are enrolled in the school’s pool testing program, and Wetmore said she’s confident that the students will go along with whatever requirements are necessary this winter to keep competing.

“The kids have been really good. They just go with the flow,” Wetmore said. “If something happens to one of them, they could affect the whole team and the whole season. They’re taking part in all the safety nets in order to participate, which says a lot for teamwork.” 

Correction: A previous version of this article did not include Mike Burnham’s entire title. He is the Maine Principals Association’s Interscholastic Executive Director.

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.