Members of the Portland/Deering girls’ hockey team run drills at Troubh Ice Arena in Portland on Dec. 10. By late December, Cumberland County had been designated “yellow,” forcing high school teams halt all in-person activities. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Maine Principals’ Association on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to schools located in “yellow” counties to begin practicing immediately with games to follow, making the decision a local matter and prompting celebration – and even some tears – among high school athletes and coaches.

“Oh my God. You made my day,” Danny Tocci, a Portland High senior ice hockey player, said when he was told the news. “Just to have some sense of normalcy back is going to be good for my teammates to see each other on a daily basis.”

The decision was a major shift from the pandemic-related policy in place since the start of the school year. The principals association met virtually with state education and health agencies on Wednesday, and they agreed to reverse the stance on yellow counties after a lengthy discussion. Previously, schools in counties designated as yellow in the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded system were not allowed to participate in any school-based activities, such as sports, drama club or music.

“The color coding system will be used as advisory to in-person learning, but will no longer apply to school-based activities,” the principals association said in a memo it sent to schools Wednesday night. “If it is deemed safe to do so by the local administration, teams may begin practicing, following the established sport-specific return to play guidelines.”

Four counties are currently designated as yellow: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York. Until now, teams in yellow counties could not practice or play interscholastic games.

The principals association met with members of the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, Gov. Janet Mills’ office, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development in late afternoon. MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said everyone involved in the decision acknowledged the emotional and mental toll the lack of participation has taken on students during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think there was considerable discussion regarding the emotional and social well-being among the kids, as well as the disparity between school-based programs and community-based programs,” Burnham said.

Just last week state officials announced that the color-coded system did not apply to the Community Sports Guidelines, which provide guidance to youth travel teams and local recreation departments.

Burnham said there was not any pushback on allowing the students to return to their teams or clubs within the school.

“I wouldn’t classify as it as pushback, just a lot of discussion,” he said. “We know it’s impossible to remove all risk.”

Burnham said teams can start practicing as soon as they get clearance from their administrators.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education did not respond to emails Wednesday night seeking information about the reasons for the change.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which is the parent organization of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association, said the decision will put pressure on superintendents and local school boards.

“Districts will need to see what is in their best interest in terms of whether that seems feasible or not,” he said. “Even some folks in green counties have started to play and had to pull back. It’s still going to require a good deal of watching, of monitoring of the safety conditions for any type of extracurricular activities.”

But even Bailey realizes this is about more than just allowing athletes or band members to play.

“It’s more than just the physical skills or the singing or the band,” he said. “It’s  the opportunity to be with some of your peers. While you might have been able to do that online, it’s not the same as getting together in an organized activity that they love doing.”

And that’s why Adele Nadeau, a senior captain for Gorham High’s girls’ basketball team, was so thrilled with the news.

“I think everyone’s spirits were pretty low for a while,” she said. “It will be nice to talk to my teammates and hang out with my basketball friends.”

The principals association is advising the schools in yellow counties to go through “an acclimatization period in which athletes recondition before playing in competitive games,” the memo said. The association’s Sports Medicine Committee is leaving the length of that period up to each school district.

“In many of these schools, the kids have been inactive for a considerable amount of time,” said Burnham, who stressed that this decision covers all extracurricular activities, not just sports.

Schools in the state’s 12 “green” counties have been able to play games since Jan. 11. Not all have begun competition yet. Some schools in Aroostook County have been and are still currently operating in a fully remote capacity because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

The rise in daily COVID-19 cases in Maine has been dramatic since the start of the school year in September, when the seven-day average of new cases across the state was in the 20s. On Wednesday, the seven-day average was 544.7 cases, up from 431.9 a month ago.

But throughout the pandemic, coaches and athletes have tried to point out that there has been very little transmission of the virus that can be traced directly to the actual playing of a sport. The Department of Education has consistently contended that schools are relatively safer than the general population.

That’s why John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach High, favors this decision.

“We have data now that we didn’t have in the fall,” he said. “We’ve been told we’re doing a great job with our schools. We know how to handle positive cases and keep moving forward. So I am strongly in favor of being allowed to practice, and that’s something I wasn’t in favor of in the fall.

“The data we’ve received changed my mind. I trust my coaches and I trust my kids. I know they will do their absolute best for our schools. I was able to reach a couple of senior girls on the basketball team and there were a lot of tears.”

Scott Rousseau, the girls’ ice hockey coach for the Cheverus/OOB co-op team, called the decision “long overdue but the right one. … It’s not an either/or thing, I think we can do both. I think we can let the kids play and be safe. I’m excited we got to this point. Now we give kids a reason to get up in the morning and have a sense of routine and purpose in their life.”

Senior basketball player Emily Archibald said she feels safe when she attends Kennebunk High.

“I do. At least in my school, everyone is wearing a mask and everyone is cautious and everyone is keeping their social distance and that’s been working really well for us,” Archibald said. “It’s up the athletic director and our school, but I think they’ll do what’s best for the student-athletes and keep us in mind when they’re making a decision.”

Amanda Kabantu, a standout senior on Portland High’s girls basketball team, admitted she was losing hope of having any time with her team after the Department of Education’s most recent color-code update on Friday. Cumberland County was the last county to shift to yellow on Dec. 18, after having two weeks of physically distanced practice.

“It’s now our responsibility to do it as safely as possible,” Kabantu said. “In order to keep practicing and playing games, we need to be safe. I think for just the players, we should limit the contact we have with other people. I know as a teenager I do it. I hang out with my friends. But when I’m playing basketball I should try to limit that and be as safe as possible so my teammates and everyone around me is safe so we can continue to be able to play.”

Jacob Humphrey, a senior basketball player at Bonny Eagle said being inactive was “taking a toll.”

“I’m sure I’m not the only one. Other kids are going through the same things,” Humphrey said. “Socially, I feel it was definitely taking a toll because I didn’t get to see my friends. We go to school on separate days and most of my friends are in the other days. In sports, I get to see them most days.”

“I have no idea what changed,” state leaders’ minds, Humphrey said. “The (COVID) situation hasn’t really gotten better. Probably it’s gotten worse. But maybe after all this time, when people kept emailing the state leaders, maybe they’re just looking at it from a different point of view.”

Marshwood High Athletic Director Rich Buzzell said the decision was a step in the right direction, but that there is a lot of work to be done yet. He’s not sure when the Hawks will resume practicing.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” he said. “We’ve got some things to figure out on our end, with it becoming a local decision. We’ve got to make sure everyone is on the same page. We’ve prepped. We’ve been ready to go since December. But there are some logistical things we have to work out.”

Everyone does. But “this is the best-case scenario we could have asked for out of this meeting,” said Gray-New Gloucester boys’ basketball coach Ryan Deschenes.

Staff Writers Steve Craig and Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.

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