A Georgetown family is scrounging for solutions to allow their son to compete on Morse High School’s wrestling team while protecting a sick family member.

The issue arose after the Maine Principal’s Association withdrew its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for high school wrestlers last month.

Last year, the association canceled the wrestling season, concerned the virus could spread easily during the indoor, close-contact sport. Players and coaches are required to wear masks.

Fred Taft said his son, a senior, “caught the wrestling bug” in spite of the season being canceled.

“As a parent, it’s amazing to see something grab him,” said Taft. “It has become a bright spot that he has and it means the world to him. We don’t want to take that away.”

When it was time to announce guidelines for winter sports this year, the Maine Principal’s Association initially announced vaccines would be required for students to participate in wrestling, but retracted that requirement less than a month later.

The association’s director, Michael Burnham, said the association initially thought masks would be unsafe to wear while wrestling, but after strong public opposition and more research, the group found masks could be worn safely.

Though Taft said his family is fully vaccinated, he is worried his son could become infected and transmit COVID-19 to his wife, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She began treatment in early November and will be immunocompromised for the next six months.

Taft said he has reached out to the school district to see if there’s a way to have his son only wrestle vaccinated students, or require vaccinations for the Morse team, but came back empty-handed.

“It has been a desperate struggle,” said Taft. “Hearing ‘there’s nothing we can do’ over and over is frustrating. It seems to me everyone is afraid of litigation. What about common sense and common decency? The America I grew up in, neighbors pulled together to help each other out, whether you knew one another or not.”

Regional School Unit 1 Athletic Director Nathan Priest said he didn’t know how many of the 14 students on the Morse High School wrestling team were vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

According to state data, 75-79% of RSU 1 students were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Thursday.

Within Sagadahoc County, just under 70% of children aged 12-19 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, just below the county’s roughly 72% vaccination rate among those eligible.

Laurie Weber-Taft said she and her son are wearing masks in common rooms of their home, not eating meals together and staying socially distanced when possible.

“It’s very difficult and feels like it’s an important time for me to be available for him,” said Weber-Taft. “Wrestling is so important to him, and he has gotten the vaccine and done what he can do to keep other people safe, so it feels unfair for him to miss out when others aren’t willing to get vaccinated.”

Weber-Taft said she feels schools should require athletes to get vaccinated in order to play high-risk sports because “it feels like the best way to put the wellbeing of the community first.”

Priest said the district is requiring all student athletes to wear masks while playing this winter, with the exception of swimmers who must wear a mask when not in the water. Coaches are also limited to spending 15 cumulative minutes in locker rooms and all spectators must be masked.

“Since day one we’ve been following MPA guidelines, which are created in conjunction with the Maine CDC and Maine DOE,” said Priest. “The MPA hasn’t mandated (vaccines). We’re trying to stay as close as possible to the guidelines presented to us.”

The Maine Principal’s Association continues to strongly recommend student athletes get vaccinated or participate in pooled testing, but Burnham said it’s up to local school districts to make the final call on what COVID-19 restrictions they want to place on student athletes.

On Monday, Portland Public Schools announced a requirement that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19 or participate in pooled testing in order to take part in winter co-curricular activities, the Portland Press Herald reported. The decision comes a few weeks after the Augusta Board of Education voted to mandate pooled testing for all of that district’s winter athletes.

Though COVID-19 case counts, especially among Maine’s children and young adults, are higher now than they were a year ago, Priest said offering students a wrestling season is important because it gives students a sense of normalcy after nearly two turbulent years and maintains students’ interest in the sport.

“Wrestling is a special sport to those who participate in it, and it takes a lot of dedication to become elite,” said Priest. “Losing two seasons in a row, it would be difficult to rebound the sport in Maine with a healthy number of kids participating. I think losing two seasons would make people lose interest in it and find something else to do. Every school that is offering wrestling is trying to have a successful season while keeping kids as safe as we possibly can and that’s a delicate balance.”

When a county is experiencing high community transmission of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Canceling or holding high-risk sports like wrestling virtually to protect in-person learning, unless all participants are fully vaccinated.

Sagadahoc County is classified as having high community transmission of COVID-19, according to CDC data. High community transmission is defined by the CDC as having 100 or more cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in a 7-day period.

When community transmission dips to “substantial,” or having 50-99 new cases per 100,00 people in a weeklong stretch, the CDC still recommends screening testing for high-risk sports twice per week for participants who are not fully vaccinated.

Despite the county and state’s high community transmission rate, Burnham said advancements in public health put the state in a better position to safely hold school sports.

“Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve learned more about vaccinations, vaccinations are available for people all the way down to age 5, and schools have implemented pooled testing,” said Burnham. “Just knowing more about this virus now and how it spreads has allowed us to move forward with a number of activities.”

Since March 2020, 20,117 Mainers under 20 have tested positive for COVID-19, making up 16.6% of the state’s total cases as of Wednesday. On Dec. 3, 2020, 1,656 Mainers under 20 had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, making up 13% of the state’s cases at that point.

Statewide, 121,447 people have tested positive since March 2020 and 1,330 have died as of Thursday.

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