Members of the Biddeford co-operative girls’ ice hockey team do pushups during a practice in November. Biddeford teams, along with those at four other southern Maine high schools, will be on pause until at least Jan. 18 as they go to remote learning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

With COVID-19 cases continuing to spike across the state, at least five high schools in southern Maine have gone to remote learning and suspended all extracurricular activities, including sports, until at least Jan. 18.

York High was the first to do so on Friday, followed by Brunswick over the weekend. Biddeford, Kennebunk and Scarborough went to remote learning on Monday.

They join several other high school teams that have had to pause in recent weeks because of COVID safety protocols. With less than a month remaining in the regular season, making up postponed games will be a challenge for athletic directors – in part because of a shortage of bus drivers and game officials.

“Here’s the thing, we’re all day-to-day right now,” said John Suttie, the superintendent of RSU 23 and principal at Old Orchard Beach High School. “Everybody is day-to-day right now. It’s about being able to staff the buildings.

“I think that everybody is doing the best they can to maintain some semblance of normalcy. If we have to do that with one-week corrections, in certain areas, at certain schools, it’s probably worth the effort to keep people safe.”

Sports teams at the five schools will be unable to practice in person or play any games until the schools reopen to in-person learning. Gorham High announced Monday that classes will be remote Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and that it will reassess the remainder of the week on Wednesday afternoon. But because the shift to remote learning stems from a staffing shortage, Gorham athletics will continue as scheduled, Athletic Director Tim Spear said.

It’s possible that several of the postponed games will not be made up. For example, both Biddeford and Brunswick have 21 events to make up across their programs – leaving teams short of completing a full season, which is 18 games in basketball. Rich Buzzell, the athletic director at Marshwood High in South Berwick, said rescheduling the games involves more than just the teams involved.

“Eighteen games for a lot of schools is not going to happen,” Buzzell said. “Not with the wrinkle of having to add (game) officials or bus drivers in. … I think there will be a great amount of schools with 16, 15 games going into the (postseason) tournament.

“The bright side is, it’s going to be an open tournament and everyone can play.”

Jeff Benson, the commissioner of officials for the Maine Principals’ Association, said a lack of game officials could be a problem. “It’s going to be difficult, no question,” he said. “I’m sure all the (game) assigners will do their best to make things happen.”

That could mean officials work both games in a girls/boys doubleheader, Benson said, or two officials rather than three at most, if not all, games.

At Brunswick High, Athletic Director Aaron Watson said once schools resume in-person learning, teams cannot simply start playing immediately.

“We can’t just fill up every day with games,” Watson said. “We will need some training when we come back. You can’t just line up three opponents in a row.”

Athletic directors from schools in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association have planned an emergency meeting for Tuesday to address several subjects concerning the pandemic, including scheduling games and fan attendance.

“Schools are going to have to make their own decisions,” Biddeford Athletic Director Dennis Walton said. “If anything, if we can decide something as a league, it will be helpful. We want to be on same page as best we can.”

Will that mean playing future games without fans? Neither Walton nor Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens could say.

“We have colleges, which have bigger operations, more people to handle things and more resources, a lot of tools we don’t have, and they’re cutting back on crowds or not letting crowds in,” Stevens said. “I know why we’re doing it. We want the kids to have a normal experience as much as possible.

“We’ve seen what happens when we didn’t have it. But at some point, we have to ask, is there a point where we go on hiatus and give ourselves a chance to get some stability and give our (school) nurses a chance to manage the caseloads they have.”

NO PLANS TO CHANGE TOURNAMENT

The MPA has no plan right now to alter its tournament format, which includes having fans in the stands.

“I think at this point we continue to work with the various venues for our championships and follow the CDC recommendations,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the principals’ association. “Obviously, with the number of cases continuing to increase now, schools are doing a nice job. If they need to take a pause, we support that. We allow them to make up games or find another opponent.

“When we get closer to the championships, we will re-evaluate if need be.”

Susan Robbins, athletic director at Gray-New Gloucester High School, called this “the most difficult time in the pandemic.”

Last week, Robbins had to reschedule girls’ basketball games against Fryeburg Academy and Cape Elizabeth when those teams were unable to compete because of safety protocols at their schools. With Brunswick going to remote learning, Robbins lost basketball games scheduled for Tuesday. She was able to pick up games against Marshwood, which was looking for an opponent when York also went remote.

The Patriots haven’t had full rosters for each game, but have not had to postpone any games because of a lack of players, Robbins said.

“We’re just trying to get games in and play with who we have,” Robbins said.

With the schools that have gone to remote learning, coaches are doing the best they can to keep the players involved.

York High boys’ basketball coach Jerry Hill, shown during a game in late December, has given his players workouts to follow while they unable to meet in person as a team until Jan. 18. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

York boys’ basketball coach Jerry Hill, whose Wildcats had won five games in a row, is having his players look at videos of their games to see where the team can improve.

He also gave them workouts to follow, but said, “They’re not allowed to work out as a group and virtual workouts are hard. Where are they going to go? There’s a foot of snow out there. So we gave them assignments to learn from each game. I told them we would meet on (Jan. 18) and they should be ready to go and get right back into the swing of things.”

Hill said he had four players out of the varsity lineup in recent weeks.

“It started with that,” he said. “And you knew this was coming.”

HOPING FOR A FULL SCHEDULE

Ben Clark, the boys’ basketball coach at Brunswick High, hopes his team can get in its full schedule.

“We’re trying so hard to make it as normal as possible but we know it’s far from that,” Clark said. “We knew coming in it’d be a difficult year, with COVID, so we’re just trying hard to focus on what we can control.

“I’d rather play back to back games then lose games altogether. I hope we can do it, but who knows if we will. It’s a very tough situation.”

The Brunswick girls were 6-0 and in second in Class A South entering this week. Coach Sam Farrell said the team had been without a couple of starters for the last several games.

“We were on a roll but it’s not the worst thing in world,” he said. “We’ve had bumps and bruises and sniffles. I’m going to be positive. We’ll come back motivated and ready to go.”

The MPA’s Burnham said he was at a recent national convention and that all states are dealing with this. “But all states are moving forward hoping to have their winter championships,” he said. “We’re certainly planning to move forward. But we’re closely monitoring everything that is going on.”

Gray-New Gloucester’s Robbins said it’s too early to tell if the postseason tournaments should be postponed or canceled, citing reports that suggest the omicron variant surge should spike by the end of January. That concerns Thornton Academy’s Stevens.

“The idea of having large gatherings at a time when the numbers of positive COVID-19  cases in the state and country are spiking may seem counterintuitive to both people directly involved in education-based athletics as well as casual observers,” Stevens said.

Bill Stewart of Central Maine Newspapers contributed to this report.

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