Portland schools adopt plan for modified winter sports

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After closing several schools in recent weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the Portland Public Schools still plans to hold a modified winter sports season. 

Nordic skiing, swimming, cheering, ice hockey, and indoor track will be allowed to go forward at city high schools this winter, with team practices scheduled to begin Jan. 4 per guidelines from the Maine Principals Association.

All sports participants including coaches, athletes, officials, and administrators will be required to wear masks at all times and complete a daily COVID-19 health screening, with any concerns followed up by athletic trainers, nurses, or a physician.

Portland High School was scheduled to be closed until Dec. 17 due to a COVID-19 outbreak that had 60 close contacts. East End Community School, Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School and Lyman Moore Middle School have also been closed for the same reason. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Additionally, if the state designates Cumberland County’s risk factor as “yellow” at any point, athletics will be suspended until it is “green” again.

Athletic directors from Portland and Deering high schools spoke about the regulations in a Dec. 8 presentation to the School Board.

Among the requirements is the closure of locker rooms; all athletes must come prepared to play. Also, no spectators will be allowed at indoor events, and there will be a 50-person limit at all indoor practices and contests. Spectators will be allowed at outdoor events, but all facilities are required to abide by a 100-person limit.

The MPA has also modified some of the sports for safety purposes, which includes restrictions such as prohibiting the jump ball in basketball.

Portland High School Athletic Director Lance Johnson also said Portland High School delayed the start of its winter sports season until this week because of its recent number of COVID-19 cases.

Portland High School was closed last week due to a virus outbreak with 60 close contacts and was scheduled to resume in-person learning in the hybrid format Thursday, Dec. 17, according to School Department Communications Coordinator Tess Nacelewicz.

Team sports will be allowed to begin scrimmaging, playing one on one, and in small groups Jan. 4.

Johnson said his school is also holding off on wrestling for now but hopes to have wrestling and girls’ volleyball in action by the end of February. 

He also said he and other officials are working on a plan for unified basketball this season because those players are part of a “more vulnerable group.” Competition may be based more on individual skills rather than team contests to maintain safety.

For sports like cheering and swimming, meets will likely be held virtually.

Deering High School Athletic Director Michael Daly said holding fall and winter sports at the high school level during this time has been “a bit humbling” thanks to students’ positive attitudes.

“(There is a lot of) work and preparation and stress that goes into all of these regulations,” Daly said. “(But) then we walk in and our students are amazing, they’re so happy to be together, they’re so respectful, they’re just making our job so much easier.”

COVID-19 cases

Portland High School is not the only city school to have closed recently due to COVID-19.

East End Community School was the most recent school to transition to remote learning last week, after two individuals tested positive for the virus, resulting in 24 close contacts having to quarantine. It reopened this week.

Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School and Lyman Moore Middle School have also closed due to outbreaks, and both were back open this week.

According to a Dec. 9 press release from the School Department, the transition to remote learning was necessary because several staff members were quarantining.

A Dec. 11 press release also said there have been positive cases at Deering High School, Casco Bay High School, Lincoln Middle School, Lyseth Elementary School, Ocean Avenue Elementary School, and Reiche Community School. 

Cumberland County remains under “green” designation by the state, but the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is “closely monitoring” the county because of the significant spike in cases, according to the department press release.

At the Dec. 8 meeting of the School Board, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana explained that when the School Department has three or more unrelated COVID-19 cases, it treats the situation “as an outbreak.” If the cases are contained to a cohort or two in a single class, only that classroom and other directly affected areas are closed for 14 days.

If the cases are spread over more than one setting, Botana said the schools follow CDC guidance, assume cases are widespread and close the entire school. Because of timed safety requirements around cleaning and testing, he added, the department has closed schools for 14 days beginning on the last day the virus was present in school.

“I understand that there are those that think we are being overly conservative,” Botana said. “I recognize the challenge that school closings present for families. We have prioritized keeping schools open in a safe and healthy manner and will continue to do so, but we will need to make these calls based on the available data.”

Schools face ‘heartbreaking’ budget choices

Portland Public Schools is required to spend the rest of its state-sourced coronavirus relief funds by Dec. 30, but has determined a way to come up with the more than $5 million necessary to continue its hybrid learning format.

According to a Dec. 8 memo from Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana to the School Board, the School Department used approximately two-thirds of its $10.5 million in relief funding, received in August, on urgent “one-time” investments associated with the pandemic.

The rest was spent on staffing and providing students with safe programming for the days they were not in school, which was made possible through partnerships with 13 community organizations.

Botana recommends Portland Public Schools discontinue community programming as a way to save $1.8 million, but his memo said the schools are still “assessing options” to support some continuation of the community options, especially for children of School Department staff who are being served.

“I want to emphasize that I do this with a heavy heart as I understand the importance of this programming for the 500 students that have taken advantage of it during the past three months,” Botana said. 

The district was initially offered $14 million in state funds but only claimed $10.5 million due to grant requirements.

One-time expenses included laptop computers for students, ventilation for buildings, and equipment needed to establish outdoor classrooms. Community-based programming gave students a safe place to go on days they were not in school and their caretakers were not available, such as activities at the Boys and Girls Club.

Administrators are working with the city Recreation Program to continue its before- and after-care programming for students on days when they are in school in person. 

Board members workshopped the issue last week, and Executive Director of Budget and Finance Miranda Fasulo said the biggest continuing cost the district faces is more than $1.5 million needed to “backfill” teacher and ed-tech positions left open by educators who now teach for Remote Academy.

Savings from areas that were not utilized this year, such as field trips, school resource officer salaries, and student transportation add up to more than $1.9 million and will help fund the additional staff salaries that have been necessary to run the hybrid format and Remote Academy. The School Department also has access to $1.3 million in CARES Contingency money and its Medicaid Fund, which can be used if needed.

Board member Adam Burk called the situation “heartbreaking,” and commended Botana for the “heart and rigor” with which he has approached conducting school this year.

At-large member Roberto Rodriguez also acknowledged that with the loss of the district providing safe child care, the potential risk of COVID-19 exposure could increase as families resort to “other means.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the budget plan at its Dec. 22 meeting. 

— Elizabeth Clemente