Last high school basketball season, masks were seen at every game and practice. This winter, despite record-setting surges of COVID-19 cases in Maine, that won’t always be the case.

Schools across the state are heading into a new winter sports season — basketball games begin Friday night — with different rules regarding who should be masked while inside their gymnasiums.

While coaches, players sitting on the bench and fans can still expect to be masked up during the game as mandatory pandemic precautions, some schools will allow players on the court to take them off. Others are mandating masks be worn at all times by all people in the gym.

The Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school athletics, does not have a uniform masking policy. As a result, decisions about COVID-19 protocols — including wearing masks and required pool testing participation — are being made by individual school districts.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend masks be worn indoors in all public places in areas of substantial or high transmission.

Last month, a number of organizations, including the Maine School Superintendents Association and the MPA, issued winter sports guidelines that “strongly recommended” all students and school staff, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors.

Waterville basketball player Dakodah Aldrich takes a foul shot against Morse during a Dec. 7 preseason game at the Augusta Civic Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We try to maintain all the CDC and DOE guidelines and recommendations regarding COVID and protecting children,” said Waterville Superintendent Eric Haley, whose high school will require everyone be masked at basketball games. “We also know that sports are a very important part of kids’ experience in schools, and we want them to experience that. … We thought it was in their best interest, health-wise, to be protected.”

In the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Cony, Mt. Blue, Waterville, Winslow, Mount View and Maranacook high schools are requiring all players be masked during games. Gardiner, Lawrence in Fairfield, Skowhegan, Erskine Academy in South China, Nokomis in Newport, Messalonskee in Oakland and Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield will not require masks for players on the court.

In the Mountain Valley Conference, Hall-Dale in Farmingdale, Madison, Carrabec, Kents Hill School and Monmouth Academy will require all players be masked. However, Winthrop, Mt. Abram and Oak Hill will not. In the East/West Conference, Rangeley and Richmond are requiring masks, while Forest Hills in Jackman, Valley and Temple are not.

Whether masks would be required for those attending high school basketball games was a hot-button topic coming into the season. With no blanket rule in place, schools were forced to make their own decisions. This set up potentially unique situations in which schools with differing policies squared off against each other. The Portland Public Schools district said it would not play games against teams that aren’t requiring masks for their players.

In central Maine, the plan is for teams with less strict guidelines to accommodate others in order to play the games.

“I think that’s pretty fair to say,” said Aaron Toman, the Gardiner boys basketball coach. “At Gardiner, we are adhering to the stricter school’s policy. For example, Cony’s coming to our place on Saturday. Cony’s requiring their athletes to wear masks, we are not, but we will wear masks in respect of Cony’s policy.”

Brunswick’s Logan Brown, left, tries to pass around Gardiner defender McKenna Johnson during a Dec. 1 scrimmage in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Messalonskee girls basketball coach Keith Derosby, whose team also plays in the KVAC, said he expects that to be the plan throughout the conference.

“You go by the most stringent policies,” he said. “If the team you’re playing has a mask policy, the other team would have a mask policy, even if your school doesn’t. That’s to my knowledge. … People say ‘Well, the team that doesn’t want to comply should forfeit,’ but we just want to play. If that means that the other team says we have to mask, even if we’re home, that’s (what we’ll do). The kids just want to play their games.”

Cony boys basketball coach T.J. Maines, whose players will be masked for all games and practices, said the coverings won’t be an impediment.

“We get to play,” he said. “We get a full schedule, there’s a plan for a tournament at the Civic Center, you’re going to have fans at the gym. It’s a million times better than where we were. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than where we were.”

Coaches in central Maine say they will adjust practices accordingly, depending on their opponents’ mask policy.

Monmouth Academy senior Hayden Fletcher, left, tries to defend Maranacook’s Brayden St. Pierre during a Nov. 30 preseason scrimmage in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Practicing without masks or playing without masks is a lot different than playing with a mask on,” Toman said. “We’ve already done it this preseason a couple of times. If we are scheduled to play a team that is requiring masks, then a day or two before, we will wear masks in practice in order to acclimate our guys to playing in masks again, because it’s a different phenomenon.”

Derosby said his team has worn a mask for most of its practices despite not being required to, just to be safe and remain accustomed.

“From the start, we did masks,” he said. “Some families and children aren’t vaccinated. … If they’re not vaccinated and they happen to not be wearing a mask in that game, they may end up being a close contact and now you’re out for 10 days.

“We just had that very, kind of adult conversation. Even though we can go without masks, there may be consequences if the worst case scenario happens.”

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