Portland High senior Danny Tocci is a co-captain on the Deering/Portland ice hockey team, which is unable to gather in-person because Cumberland County has been designated as “yellow.” “I do definitely worry about some of my teammates’ mental health because (playing sports) is all we’ve known,” he says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Portland High School senior Danny Tocci considers himself a “glass half full person.” So he sees the benefits of virtual meetings with his Portland/Deering ice hockey teammates and coaches as he hopes for some form of a season this winter.

But Tocci said it is getting tougher and tougher to maintain a healthy outlook as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on and he and his teammates are not allowed to gather for any type of in-person athletic activities because they are in one of Maine’s four “yellow” counties.

“It’s saddening in a way and I do definitely worry about some of my teammates’ mental health because (playing sports) is all we’ve known,” said Tocci, a co-captain. “It means so much. It’s a way to release energy, see people and converse. It’s just having something to belong to and a place where you feel comfortable and you can go there and express yourself.”

With high school teams in yellow counties unable to meet for practices or even socially distanced workouts after school, educators and medical professionals are sounding the alarm that, in the effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, the mental well-being of student-athletes is increasingly at risk.

“I think for a good percentage of the kids, yes, it is affecting their mental health,” said John Ryan, the certified athletic trainer at South Portland High and president of the Maine Athletic Trainers’ Association. “And for me, it’s not so much being able to play games, it’s being able to get together with their buddies and do something. … For a lot of these kids, being involved in athletics is a driving force for them to go to school. So now you’ve taken that away and they’re sitting at home thinking, ‘Why bother to go to school?'”

On Dec. 18 Cumberland County became the fourth county to be designated yellow in the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded health advisory for schools. Cumberland, along with Androscoggin, Oxford and York counties, will remain yellow at least until Jan. 29, the DOE announced on Friday. And when a county is deemed “yellow” for academic purposes, it means a full-stop “red” for athletics, according to pandemic guidelines set by the Maine Principals’ Association and key state health and education agencies. More than one-third of the state’s high schools including 17 of the 20 largest schools  are located in those four counties.

Across the state, people like Ryan and Greely Athletic Director David Shapiro have raised concerns. They point to data collected in Wisconsin, Maine and across the country that show high school athletes have become more depressed and anxious, particularly when they are unable to participate in sports. The research also indicates a significant increase in thoughts of self-harm or suicide and an overall decline in quality of life measures.

“I think it’s my job that people have studies of that nature in their hands whenever they make a decision,” Shapiro said. “I’m trying to send it to whomever I can, the Department of Health and Human Services, the governor’s office, Dr. (Nirav) Shah (at the Maine CDC) to make sure information about the mental health of kids is in the forefront.

“I’m deeply concerned about the lasting effects of their current inactivity,” Shapiro added. “We know in a good year, a regular year, there are significant health benefits of just being active. Now you figure all the other stressors that our kids have right now are further compounded by not being able to be active.”

Dean Plante, the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Old Orchard Beach High, says “athletics should not be shut down” at schools in counties designated as yellow by the state. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Shapiro and Ryan are not suggesting that schools ignore the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths and return to a pre-pandemic approach. What they and many others want is for the 51 high school programs affected by yellow status to at least be allowed to have small groups gather for simple and physically distanced conditioning.

“Those schools that are yellow and in-person should be able to do skills and drills in my opinion; athletics should not be shut down,” said Dean Plante, the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Old Orchard Beach, where students are attending in-person learning four days a week. “Yellow should not be red in that instance. It makes no sense. It’s contradictory to what we’re doing during the school day.”

In-person physical education classes are being held during the school day. Meanwhile, club and youth sports teams in yellow counties have been given the go-ahead to practice and play games. And even though daily case counts have steadily increased across the state, more than 90 schools in green counties began interscholastic competitions on Jan. 11.

So while athletes at Mt. Ararat in Topsham, in Sagadahoc County are able to run, shoot, skate, ski and ride the bus to away games, just across the Androscoggin River in Cumberland County, coaches and players on Brunswick High’s teams are only able to connect via virtual conferences.

“We’re worried all the time about kids being on screens too much and now we’re pushing them there,” said Sam Farrell, the girls’ basketball coach at Brunswick. Farrell contends the pandemic’s effects are discouraging participation. “I’ve seen it with my own program. We have 18 signed up and last year we had 29.”

DATA SHOW RISE IN ANXIETY, DEPRESSION

Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health professionals have warned about the dangers of isolation and loneliness in the general population. As Maine’s daily case rate of COVID-19 started to spike in November, crisis and wellness call centers experienced an increase in service requests.

For many high school athletes, much of their self-worth is tied to their association with sports, said Rob Smith, a clinical sports psychologist in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“It’s an identity. That’s what’s on the line for kids and why it’s so stressful, is that (being an athlete) is how they define themselves,” Smith said, noting that “if you think about what the pandemic has done, it’s created this giant series of losses.”

Isolation and time away from friends and sports were key contributing factors to the Dec. 4 suicide death of Brunswick High sophomore Spencer Smith, 16, his family said.

“The worst thing for kids is to be sitting in their room ruminating about what they lost,” said Dan Gould, the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

High school athletes reported increased feelings of depression and anxiety as early as May, when spring sports were shut down across the country. In a solicited survey of over 3,200 Wisconsin high school athletes, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, researchers found 62 percent of both females and males reported mild or moderate/severe depression symptoms.

In previous studies of Wisconsin high school athletes, 35 percent of females and only 21 percent of males reported any depression symptoms. The increase in the moderate/severe category was more than three times greater for girls and more than four times greater for boys.

The survey was then expanded to high school athletes across the country, drawing over 13,000 responses, including 102 from Maine (62 girls, 40 boys). While 102 represents a far smaller sample size, the Maine students reported greater levels of depression, including moderate to severe depression, than their peers in Wisconsin. In a separate measure for anxiety, 50 percent of the female respondents from Maine reported moderate to severe anxiety, compared to 43.7 percent in the overall national survey.

“The research is very consistent with what is being seen across the country,” said Ryan, the athletic trainer at South Portland High. “The problem is getting state policy leaders to fully understand that decisions they are making are adversely affecting the kids.”

The researchers repeated the survey in September to compare Wisconsin students playing a fall sport to those who had their fall sport canceled because of the pandemic.

“We found they were twice as likely to be mildly or moderately depressed if they were not playing their fall sport,” said Tim McGuine, a co-author of the original study.

VIRTUAL MEETINGS ARE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PRACTICES

Virtual team meetings serve one primary purpose, said Eric Curtis, the athletic director at Bonny Eagle High in Standish.

“What I’m trying to get across to my coaches is, honestly, just to make connections with the kids and keep their spirits up,” Curtis said.

Rachel Wall, a senior co-captain of the Freeport High girls’ basketball team, said she and her teammates are working hard to make sure they maintain a positive connection. Freeport girls’ basketball coach Seth Farrington asked Wall and her fellow captains Hannah Groves and Mason Baker-Schlendering to become active leaders in the virtual team meetings. Each captain has a cohort of teammates whom they direct in daily individual workouts.

Rachel Wall, one of the captains of the Freeport High girls’ basketball team, says she and her teammates are working hard to make sure they maintain a positive connection while they are unable to practice. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“With my group I’ve been trying to make sure they stay active and doing their workouts,” Wall said. “If we do get to have a season and can practice again, it’s super important that we can just start right back. And, I’m also trying to encourage them because just being a student now is really hard.

“We are separated so much of the time. You want them to stay connected and encourage them throughout the week so they don’t feel alone. And a lot do feel that way right now,” Wall added.

Kennebunk girls’ basketball coach Rob Sullivan said virtual meetings shouldn’t be considered a substitute for practices. Rather, they can be effective for team bonding. He tries to meet with his team three or four times a week for 30- to 45-minute sessions broken into several segments. There is some coaching and drill demonstration but there are also trivia contests or word games to lighten the mood.

Like many other coaches, Sullivan wonders why, when it comes to high school sports, “yellow means red.” He’s not advocating a full start-up of cross-town games. Rather, Sullivan says there is great value with relatively little risk for teams in yellow counties to get in the gym.

“I can put 10, 12 kids in a gym with six hoops and they can stay pretty far apart,” Sullivan said. “Part of me would like to do that but there’s another part that would like to wait longer knowing that, when we do start (practicing), we’ll be able to finish a season.”

Others are more adamant that practices need to be allowed  and soon. Plante says he’s already sensed waning interest in virtual meetings, particularly among students drawn to a sport primarily for its social engagement.

“You always have those fringe kids that (play sports) to be part of something and that’s the beauty of education-based sports. It gives kids that sense of belonging,” Plante said. “Now, those on-the-cusp kids are looking around, and if they have the opportunity to bag groceries and make $12 an hour or stare at me on the computer, it’s a tough sell for a lot of kids. And a lot of families.”

“I’m hoping there’s some movement on the yellow designation,” said Farrington, the Freeport girls’ basketball coach. “The only thing it affects is co-curricular” activities because almost all schools are already operating in a hybrid model.

“If our county goes yellow, we should be yellow in sports. Not red. Yellow. Which means we socially distance, wear a mask,” Farrington said. “And I’m not worried about games. I just want to be in the gym, practicing with those kids that wear Freeport jerseys. I think they need each other, they need the coaches. And the coaches need them, too.”

“There’s some things that don’t make sense to us,” Shapiro said. “We can have in-person learning and we’re an education-based activity, why can’t we extend that learning to the gym, or the rink? For that matter, why can’t we do alpine skiing? Or be in a pool, where chlorine kills (the virus)?

“Everything still centers on their mental health and the long-term effects that this may have and we know the antidote: let them play. At the very least practice.”

For that to happen, the Maine Principals’ Association’s guidance, developed in conjunction with officials across the state, would need to be modified. Executive Director Mike Burnham said he has shared a presentation made by McGuine about the Wisconsin research to some of the key agencies in the state.

“All the state agencies are meeting (this) week to talk about winter sports and what’s transpiring now,” Burnham said.

Until changes are made, though, online practice workouts and attempts at team bonding through virtual meetings are likely to continue.

“As for our team, a lot of girls are trying to make the most of the situation we can,” said Freeport’s Wall.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 case numbers remain high in Maine. With the winter high school sports schedule slated to end in late February, time is running out for some teams to have a meaningful season.

“I try to keep positive,” said Tocci, the hockey player at Portland High, “but some kids in our grade, some of the basketball players especially, are saying, ‘We’re never going to get out of it. We’re never going to have a season.’ I try to tell them to stay positive, but there’s no real evidence that everything is going to get better.”


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