PARIS — Volunteers, kids and parents supporting Oxford Hills Athletic Boosters overflowed the conference room and spilled into the hall Monday night during School Administrative District 17’s board of directors meeting, urging officials to open school gymnasiums up to youth sports once again.

Since the pandemic began, access to school facilities has been restricted despite scholastic sports seasons returning last winter.

With the district’s athletic director scheduled to present his recommendations for winter sports during the meeting, supporters of the boosters were determined to make the case for younger and non-scholastic athletes in Oxford Hills to play as well.

Two youth coaches who also coach school athletic teams, Scott Graffam and Pat Carson, started the public comment period focusing on ways to make participation and spectatorship safe and supportive. Carson stressed the importance of team sports to help children overcome the emotional stresses caused by almost two years of pandemic isolation.

One obstacle to using facilities during after-school hours has been the expansion of the cafeteria space into the gyms to allow students to distance during meal times.

Joe Trybus, president of the boosters organization, offered that volunteers would be willing to move tables and chairs before and after practices and games and also do the sanitizing.

Three others also addressed the board, including boosters Vice President Stacy Hall, who coaches youth cheerleading, and parents Courtney Lynch of Paris and Alyson Farrington of Hebron.

“Boosters are critical to youth development,” Lynch said. “It’s not just about sports. Friendships and bonds are made, kids learn about hard work, they learn to dig in, do better and be better … We have gyms sitting idle. If tables and chairs need to be moved I am sure that parents will be willing to volunteer to move them. These are public buildings and the children who go to school in these buildings ought to be able to use them.”

Farrington spoke more personally, talking about how one of her children struggled with health and emotional well-being during isolation.

“The absence of boosters was devastating to my daughter,” she said, fighting tears as she spoke. “The things that seem like hurdles, they are things that we can overcome.”

Facilities Director David Coburn said that the biggest challenge to opening up schools during off hours has been lack of custodial staff to sanitize areas and surfaces after use, and the liability if untrained volunteers become responsible for it. One director floated the idea of offering employees stipends to fill the role, which others said is asking for too much when educators are facing exhaustion.

Director Robert Jewell of Paris was not opposed to hiring out for cleaning but said the expense should be paid for by the boosters, not the district. Others objected to his position, saying that CARES Act and other relief funds from the federal and state governments should more than cover spending that directly benefits the well being of students. Chief Student Services Officer Jan Neureuther cautioned directors and attendees to be cognizant of the protocols school districts are expected to follow in order to participate in the pooled testing program.

After the board approved the winter sports season, Chairperson Natalie Andrews of West Paris urged boosters officials to work with administration directors and the superintendent to come up with plans that will allow all students in Oxford Hills to participate in the sports programs of their choosing.

Athletic Director Kevin Ryan’s recommendations included universal masking at all indoor events and common areas like buses; keeping concession stands outside of the gymnasiums; following facility rules at other schools during sporting events and denying access to visiting teams that do not comply with Oxford Hills’ rules; limiting spectators at home games; and not allowing them at indoor track meets held at other facilities. Ryan said student vaccination and participation in pooled testing are strongly recommended. The most recent Maine Principals’ Association guidelines call for wrestling athletes to be vaccinated but they may revisit that requirement.

Dr. Kate Herlihy, SAD 17’s medical director, addressed board members about rising COVID numbers in Oxford County and said that masking should be required for all students in schools until the Maine Department of Education, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maine Center for Disease Control indicate that it is safe to drop the mandate.

Jewel wanted to know if young people are getting sick like they have the flu, questioning whether COVID-19 will go away.

“They tell you that kids with COVID really aren’t affected for the most part in a real serious way,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what the experts will say.”

Jewel wanted to know if different measurements should be made in assessing not only infections but in how sick children are getting.

“The pandemic will go away,” Herlihy assured Jewel. “But COVID will not. The vaccine does protect enormously against the severity of the disease.”

Herlihy pointed out that with the delta variant more children are getting sick. She said hospitals in Maine are over capacity to the point that some patients have to be transferred to larger hospitals in Massachusetts.

“Twenty-two percent of cases now are kids, and they are getting sicker,” she said. “If one kid gets really sick, and God forbid, one kid dies in our district, that’s a terrible thing.”

“I’m looking for a definitive number,” Jewel said. “If we have plans to get out of this, we should have a target that we’re shooting for. I would like to know what that target is. We’ve had flu in schools forever, children hospitalized forever … I would like to know what the number is for you to go to the superintendent and say, ‘OK, we’ve hit that number. I think it’s OK to take our masks off’ … If we’re talking about 1%, that’s not a real high percentage to me. A hard number, where do we need to be? We talk about this and talk about this but never identify what we want.”

“This is not the flu,” Herlihy countered. “This is much worse than the flu. Since 1918 we haven’t seen the morbidity and mortality that we have with COVID. As far as that number, it’s the groups of people at the state level who are making the recommendations on this.”

“I appreciate that we can review this every couple of months,” Director Julia Lester of Paris said of the masking debate following Herlihy’s remark. “To start to (know) what we do value and have that discussion. When we see numbers that are as high as they are with unfavorable increases, isn’t necessarily the time to talk about the end result because it’s still growing. It’s not that it’s reducing and we’re just waiting to get to a number we’re happy with. We’re still increasing.

“It’s not just … about sick kids and the severity of their illness. We play a role in public health,” she said. “We have 4,000 people coming to our buildings every single day. And that has impact on how our communities are going to be affected. … I think we’re still far away from talking about an end goal when things are still on the rise.”


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