It was always a question of when, not if, high school athletic teams in Maine would have to quarantine because of a COVID-19 case within their program.

And in the first week of scheduled practices, teams from at least three schools had to shut down in-person activities, including the football programs at Massabesic High in Waterboro, Winslow and Morse High in Bath.

The news comes as Maine and other states have experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the summer as the delta variant spreads. Through Friday, the seven-day case average in Maine was 160.1. Two weeks earlier, the seven-day average was 120.4 cases; two weeks before that it was 70.

“I think we’re all hopeful that we’re going to be able to get through this and have a normal fall and a full slate of games and championships,” said John Ryan, the athletic trainer at South Portland High and the president of the Maine Athletic Trainers’ Association.

“But as we’ve seen, in a week in which different schools have had to close things down a week or so and kids are not even back in school yet, certainly there’s reason for concern that there’s going to be some bumps in the road.”

Mike Burnham, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said he has had conversations with several schools regarding what they should do in the event of a close contact or positive test. The MPA is not releasing Return to Competition Guidelines this fall, as they did last year when sports resumed during the pandemic.

“Our recommendation, similar to what we recommended over the summer, is that schools continue to follow the Maine CDC and federal CDC guidelines that are in place,” said Burnham. “Those guidelines include recommendations for vaccinations, pool testing and wearing of masks indoors.”

The U.S. and Maine CDC recommends a quarantine of at least 10 days after close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. People who are fully vaccinated are advised to be tested for COVID three-to-five days after the last exposure and to wear a mask indoors for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result.

Ryan said people may have been lulled into a false sense of security when the COVID-19 positive rates and hospitalizations were low. But Maine, like everywhere else, is experiencing a surge in both.

“I think a lot of us just relaxed a little bit and now we’re right back in that situation we were in in March and April,” he said.

High schools have been dealing with similar COVID-related situations since returning to competition last fall, with games being postponed or canceled at the last minute. And while the football teams at Massabesic, Winslow and Morse are the only confirmed teams to have to shut down, there could be other schools across the state facing similar circumstances.

“We have no other teams with any other COVID-related issues at this time,” said Brendan Scully, the athletic director at Massabesic. “But I’ve heard of others at other schools. So that being the case, I don’t anticipate those will be the only schools that will experience issues with this.”

Scully said one person connected to the Massabesic football team had exposure to COVID-19 “away from school and the team.” Scully declined to confirm if the person was a player or coach.

“We did not have a spread within the team and it wasn’t contracted through school events,” he said.

Massabesic stopped its full-team football practices on Wednesday and began a 10-day quarantine. First-year head coach Lucas Labbe said about 25 of the 64 players in the program have been able to gather and do workouts. The players who do not have to quarantine are either vaccinated (the majority) or were not at the practices when exposure occurred.

Massabesic to cancelled last Saturday’s home scrimmage with Scarborough and Portland and will not play its scheduled exhibition game this weekend at Bonny Eagle. Scully said the football team can return to full in-person activities this Saturday and will prepare to host Marshwood in its season opener on Sept. 3.

“We need to go through almost acclimatization again. We’ll go right to game one,” Scully said. “It’s not perfect. Our plans were different but we’re planning on going full speed ahead for Sept. 3.”

The Winslow football team learned on Thursday night that it had to halt practices, said co-head coach Wes Littlefield. The Black Raiders are on pause until next Monday, and are scheduled to open the regular season at York on Sept. 3. Winslow’s exhibition game scheduled for Saturday against Lawrence was canceled.

“We’ll play at York without an exhibition. The kids haven’t even been in full pads yet,” Littlefield said. “I hope it doesn’t happen the rest of the year, but I don’t see how it doesn’t happen all over the state.”

Littlefield declined to say if a player or coach in the program tested positive or if Winslow’s pause was because of contract tracing. Fourteen of Winslow’s 35 players have been vaccinated, Littlefield said.

Morse football coach Jason Darling called the first week of practice an “awesome week” for his football team, until a positive COVID-19 test last Thursday within the program caused a halt in the action.

“The kids are attacking it and doing great as we work through this,” said Darling. “We have some kids who can come out in-person and practice in-person this week while the close-contacts will have to quarantine.”

Darling says the Shipbuilders are planning to get back to full-team practices starting Friday. Because of the quarantine, Morse will be forced to cancel its two preseason scrimmages with Camden Hills and Stearns. Both games were scheduled for this week.

“In a way, it’s a good thing that this happened to us this early on in the season,” said Darling. “We can take away things we can do better from this and have a better idea on how to prepare for a situation like this one if it happens closer to a game.”

The MPA, hoping to alleviate some of the pressure schools feel to get the fall regular-season games in, has once again approved an open postseason tournament – which was also used for the spring season – for soccer, field hockey and volleyball. Golf was the only sport last fall to hold a state championship.

“Knowing that we’re not out of the woods with this pandemic it made sense, eliminating the pressure of trying to get those (postponed) games made up because your postseason’s qualification hinges on the Heal points,” said Burnham. “We’ll deal with those (postponements) and make the accommodations similar to the spring. At the end of the (school) year we had some very nice championships.”

In football, the regional playoff structure in each class is determined by the leagues or conferences. The MPA only oversees the state championship games.

Press Herald reporters Steve Craig and Travis Lazarczyk and Times Record reporter Eli Canfield contributed to this report.

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