Last week, Hawaii became the first state to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for those participating in high school sports, including athletes, coaches, athletic staff and volunteers.

But as high schools across Maine prepare to reopen and offer a full season of fall sports, there’s little support among school officials for following Hawaii’s path.

“I haven’t heard anything about requiring vaccinations for high school sports and there’s no requirement for kids attending school either,” said Jeff Porter, the superintendent of schools in Cumberland and North Yarmouth. “That would have to be a state law … I think there would be a lot of opposition to requiring a vaccine for high school sports.”

Porter said that about 70 percent of all students at Greely High participate in high school sports. “To make sure all those kids are vaccinated, I would be opposed to that,” he said. “It’s not feasible at all and could take a lot of kids out.”

York Superintendent Lou Goscinski agreed.

“If you’re going to mandate vaccines, it really has to come from state,” he said. “I know I’d have tremendous pushback from parents if I were going to try to mandate vaccines.”

The decision by the Hawaii Department of Education comes as COVID cases are spiking again across the nation because of the delta variant, and as more colleges and employers are insisting that their campuses and workplaces are restricted to fully vaccinated individuals.

Hawaii has a slightly larger population (1.46 million) than Maine (1.37 million), but its seven-day average of new COVID cases stood Monday at 530 compared to the seven-day average of 135 cases in Maine. The positivity rate for COVID tests in Hawaii is at 7.3 percent; in Maine it is 5.4 percent.

The Maine Department of Education has no COVID vaccination requirements for schools. Maine, like the federal Centers For Disease Control, is recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. But the decisions are left to individual school districts.

Practices for Maine’s fall high school sports season – football, field hockey, soccer, cross country, golf and volleyball – are scheduled to begin next Monday.

Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said there have been no discussions among schools regarding vaccinations.

“Most of the conversations have been about getting all kids back into school as much as possible and moving forward from there,” he said.

He added that “it certainly would be wonderful if all our athletes and students were vaccinated. Even then, there are breakthrough cases. Vaccines are good. But vaccines and masks are even better.”

Mike Burnham, the executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said Tuesday that any vaccination-for-participation mandate would have to come from either the state Department of Education or at the local level.

“We can recommend (vaccination),” Burnham said. “We feel it’s a perfect opportunity if they’re fully vaccinated to get back to play without having to worry about the quarantining and shutting down programs. At this point, it can’t be a requirement. It needs to be looked at, either on an individual basis or at the school level.”

Dr. William Heinz, chair of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, said he’s in favor of requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to participate in school extracurricular activities in the coming school year, but added he doesn’t think it’s feasible right now.

“I’d suggested all along we try to require that, but I think politically that’s not something that we can do. That’s a great suggestion, to get all the coaches and athletes and administrators vaccinated. I just don’t know that we have control over that,” Heinz said.

“Certainly while we’re under the emergency use authorization of those vaccines, until they get full FDA approval, it makes it really difficult to require that.”

Andrew Dolloff, the Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools, also said the decision to require vaccinations would have to come from state officials.

“Any discussions of forced vaccinations have been quickly dismissed at our level,” he said in an email. “That would be something we would expect the State to decide after the vaccines are fully approved. The current (FDA) emergency authorization makes that a non-starter from what I’ve heard.”

Dolloff said most of the discussions so far about fall sports have been “whether or not athletes and coaches will be required to wear masks when indoors. I fully anticipate that we will be offering a full slate of athletic activities this fall, but we may have to have participants and spectators wear face coverings when indoors, if we abide by CDC and DOE recommendations. Other than that, we’re ready to play ball.”

John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach High, believes things would have to “take a turn for the worst” for vaccinations to be required, especially in his district. According to Maine CDC data, the town of Old Orchard Beach has a 99 percent vaccination rate among eligible residents.

In York, where the vaccination rate is 85 percent, school officials are taking an additional step by offering pool testing. Students will be placed in pools and tested every week in the program, which is being offered by the state. As long as a student tests negative, he or she will not have to enter quarantine even as a close contact to a person who tests positive.

It’s an opt-in, voluntary, program, which Goscinski hopes everyone will participate in. If someone in a pool tests positive for COVID-19, anyone who is not vaccinated in the pool will have to go into quarantine for 10 days.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” said Goscinski. “We want kids in school and participating in activities. To me, it’s a no-brainer to participate in pool testing.”

The MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee met Tuesday morning, and made no recommendations for substantive changes to high school sports played this fall. In the case of volleyball, the only fall sport played indoors, the committee recommended that mask-wearing during competition be left up to the home school. If the home school wears masks in the classroom, for example, it can decide if masks should be worn during a volleyball game in its gym. Some schools could decide to limit mask wearing in volleyball matches to those on the sidelines, coaches, and officials.

Tim Spear, athletic director at Gorham High School, said he hopes this doesn’t become a sticking point for schools that choose not to wear masks in the classroom.

“If you come to Gorham, you’ll be in a mask whether you’re playing or not. I can see this being a major storm,” Spear said.

The MSSA’s Bailey said his association is recommending wearing masks indoors.

“We learned how to do that,” he said. “Last year at this point in time (wearing masks while playing) was seen as, ‘They can’t do that.’ Well we’ve done an awful lot of things with masks.”


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