Deering High School students practice soccer, one of the state-approved fall sports that resumed last week with special COVID-19 restrictions, on Monday, Sept. 21. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Students are adjusting to playing under a rigorous set of COVID-19 regulations as the fall sports season begins in some Portland public schools. 

Deering High School Athletic Director Michael Daly and Portland High School Athletic Director Lance Johnson gave a presentation to the School Board Sept. 15 about rules for the season.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend also gave an update regarding sports at the city’s public middle schools, where students will only compete in intramurals this fall. The reports came after Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine Principals Association, and Maine School Superintendents Association released official school sports guidance Sept. 10.

“Based on the guidance received … we are proceeding with the start of fall sports as originally scheduled,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told the board at last week’s meeting. “As you know this has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride and I am grateful that we are now in a place to launch the season with the necessary precautions.”

Botana said starting the season required no action from the board.

Boys and girls cross country, boys and girls soccer, and golf were approved for interscholastic competition at both Portland and Deering High School this fall. Field hockey has also been approved and, like last year, will be played with a co-op team of athletes from Portland and Deering.

Administrators are putting the sports given the green light into regional “pods” for scheduling. For some sports including soccer, the season will be shorter than usual: eight games instead of the typical 14.

Daly said the postseason schedule will be different for each activity, but there will be “more postseason opportunities” for cross country and golf because they pose less COVID-19 risk than other sports. 

Football and volleyball were not approved for the fall, but Daly said he, Johnson, and other area athletic directors met and determined seven-versus-seven flag football will be offered as an intramural activity at both high schools. 

High school volleyball and cheer will also be offered as activities instead of competitive sports, and conducted outdoors per state requirements. Daly said the state identified cheer as a “moderate-risk activity.”

He added athletic directors are also considering the possibility of hosting “inter-city scrimmages” for flag football and volleyball. 

Even for sports that have been approved for competition, however, the state established restrictions.

For instance, no practices will be held indoors at Portland or Deering this season, no more than 100 people are allowed to gather outdoors for sporting events, and all spectators, coaches, officials, and athletes must wear masks unless actively playing in a game.

Additionally, no practices will be held indoors; if there is inclement weather, practice will end. Daly said “from an emergency action plan” standpoint, if there is lightning, athletes will go inside designated areas maintaining cohorts of no more than 30 people.

If a county is designated a “yellow” or “red” zone in terms of COVID-19 cases, no practices or games will be held until it is “green” again.

According to the Maine Department of Education, categorization as red suggests a county has a high risk of COVID-19, making in-person school instruction inadvisable. Yellow suggests an elevated risk, allowing schools to consider a hybrid instruction model, and green indicates a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread.

Cumberland County has been green since the DOE launched the color-coding system in July.

Daly also outlined updated training protocols that will be in place at the city’s high schools and called school athletic trainers a “key piece” of the process of resuming fall sports.

He said Deering High School athletic trainer Greg Tosi and Portland High School trainer Ryan Lucas will tend to all athletes’ injuries and medical emergencies. The trainers will also assist coaches in conducting COVID-19 health screening of athletes.

“In past times sometimes a coach would help tape an ankle or put on a bandaid, (but) that is not going to happen,” Daly said. “The only people who would do that would be our athletic trainers with gloves on and full safety equipment.”

All coaches were also required to take a special certification class in COVID-19 safety, and workout areas have been established in specific areas to keep cohorts to 10 students at a time, even though the state limit is 30 students.

The School Department will also cease the sharing of clothing – soccer players, for example, will keep and launder their own scrimmage vests after receiving them from coaches. Student-athletes must also bring their own masks to practices and games, as well as their own labeled water bottles. The School Department will have some extra masks in case they are needed. 

There will also be no access to locker rooms this season, and the number of people in bathrooms will be limited.

Student-athletes will have to make other behavior modifications as well, such as sanitizing their mouth guards and hands if they remove the guards while playing or practicing, and completing a daily health assessment. Answers to the cloud-based assessments are reviewed by athletic directors, and athletic trainers, co-curricular directors, or school nurses will be consulted if any red flags are noted. 

Despite the changes to their usual sports routines, Daly said students have been receptive to the new normal.

“They’re being honest and really making it easy for us,” he said. 

At the middle school level, Townsend said similar health and safety protocols will be put in place for intramurals, which will begin Oct. 5.

He added other middle schools in the region made the same decision not to conduct interscholastic sports, in part because of the implementation of the hybrid model and the inability of middle school students to “self-transport” to practices and games.

Johnson said at Portland High School the transition to the fall season hasn’t been “perfect,” but he echoed Daly’s sentiment regarding cooperation from the student-athletes.

“Overall things have gone very smoothly, the student-athletes have been very open to guidance and instruction from our coaches,” he said.