High school teams in southern Maine, including at Gray-New Gloucester and Brunswick, will be unable to start practice Monday on the delayed opening day of the winter sports season for teams in other parts of the state because their counties are still designated as “yellow” under the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded coronavirus guidelines. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

High school athletics will remain on hold in the four southern Maine counties of Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York until after the rest of the state can begin playing competitive games.

That’s the result of Thursday’s announcement that those four counties are still designated “yellow” by the Maine Department of Education. Schools within yellow counties are unable to hold any athletic activities, with coaches limited to communicating with their players virtually, according to guidelines established by the Maine Principals’ Association and state agencies.

“Right now we’re virtual because yellow means red for athletics,” said South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston. “We told (our coaches) to make sure they have plans to stay connected virtually, and they have been doing that. Like I’ve told them all along, we can’t predict what is going to happen, but we’ll have a plan in place for that next date when they can have something.”

The next scheduled DOE update to the color code system is Jan. 15.

As of now, no changes have been made to the MPA’s plan to allow schools in “green” counties to begin full-scale practices on Monday, with the first allowable day for competition still set for Jan. 11.

“That hits hard up here because our closest school is Mt. Ararat and they’re in (Sagadahoc County),” said Sam Farrell, the girls’ basketball coach at Brunswick, which is in Cumberland County. “Our kids feel that a lot. They have friends at those schools who can practice and maybe even play games before we can even start practice.”

Currently, the regular season is scheduled to conclude Feb. 27, followed by a two-week window in March to allow for the potential of holding modified, region-based playoffs. The MPA has also made it clear that the pandemic leaves all dates subject to change.

The DOE’s color-coded system, designed in July, has been used to represent what the agency determines to be the risk of community spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The DOE’s announcement came on a day when the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 13 additional deaths and, for the third time in eight days, more than 700 new COVID-19 cases. While northern and eastern Maine counties were not designated to be in the higher-risk “yellow” category, both Aroostook and Penobscot are now being “closely monitored,” because their test positivity rates are above the state average. Four of the deaths reported Thursday were in Aroostook, Maine’s northernmost county.

The four “yellow” counties had both test positivity rates and new case rates per 10,000 residents above the state averages, according to the DOE release.

The release also noted that, based on Maine CDC data, there continues to be a lower rate of transmission of COVID-19 in schools compared to the general population: 33.5 new cases per 100,000 staff and students, compared to 89.4 per 100,000 statewide over the past 30 days.

On Dec. 18, Cumberland County was added to the “yellow” list for the first time.

Androscoggin, Oxford and York counties have been yellow since the start of winter skills and conditioning workouts at other Maine schools on Dec. 7.

York County spent the first five weeks of the shortened fall season in the yellow category. Other counties, including Oxford, had two-week periods of inactivity because of a yellow designation.

“It just feels like you’re in a bad dream, underneath a black cloud, and no matter how fast you drive or how fast you run, that cloud just keeps over you and keeps raining,” said Rich Buzzell, the athletic director at Marshwood High in South Berwick. “You just have to keep thinking positively and hope the vaccines kick in, but until then, our health is the most important thing and we want to maintain safety for our kids and our staff. … I know better days are ahead, it’s just how quickly we get there.”

Buzzell said his district has received help in providing online fitness instruction options to both its students and teachers. A gym in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that is owned by a family from within the RSU 35 school district is offering free online video classes, including yoga.

“The family that runs the gym is so supportive of wanting to do it,” Buzzell said. “And since we do have online (hybrid) learning, hopefully everyone has an internet connection and can use it.”

While a variety of virtual options can provide outlets to improve mental and physical health, Farrell said he can see from his own players and students that it’s not the same as meeting in person – especially for students who are doing most of their learning online.

“At Brunswick, they only come to school once a week if they come at all,” Farrell said. “We can have Google Meets, but it’s just not the same. The kids love being together. Probably for most of them, that’s more important than the basketball. And the fact they can’t be together is what hits them so hard.”

In addition to the impact on high school athletics, club and youth recreational activities are also affected, based on language in Maine’s Community Sports Guidelines that states: “Organizers of community sports should suspend competitions and group practices in counties categorized as ‘Yellow.'”

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