Pandemic encourages Portland students to ski, swim

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Despite Cumberland County’s yellow designation putting the winter sports season on hold, Portland schools have seen an unexpected spike in interest for two sports.

Deering High School Athletic Director Michael Daly said Monday that swimming and Nordic, or cross-country, skiing have more students interested in participating than last year. 

“We have over 50 kids in Nordic, we almost can’t take anymore because how do you manage that?” Daly said Jan. 11. “Especially virtually it’s a little hard, (but this year we’ve seen) our best numbers ever so there’s a silver lining.”

In-person athletics are on hold at Portland’s public high schools while Cumberland County is still designated “yellow” under the state’s system that identifies COVID-19 risk. The status will be reevaluated with the rest of the state Jan. 15. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Cumberland County remains designated yellow according to the Department of Education COVID-19 grading system, which suggests there is an elevated risk and schools should consider additional precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Portland schools originally planned to hold a modified winter sports season before the county was designated yellow, but according to guidelines issued by the Maine Principals Association, if a county is designated yellow or red, no sports are allowed to be played there until it is “green” again. 

Nordic skiing, swimming, cheering, ice hockey, and indoor track were all allowed to go forward with restrictions at city schools this winter. Additionally, Portland High School Athletic Director Lance Johnson told the School Board last month that school sports officials hoped to proceed with wrestling and girls’ volleyball by the end of February, and they were working on a plan for unified basketball.

Cumberland County was designated green from the time the state introduced the grading system in July until mid-December, and was again designated yellow on Dec. 31 along with Androscoggin, Oxford, and York counties. 

The state is expected to update each county’s status again on Friday, Jan. 15.

Daly said the yellow designation came as Deering High School and Portland High School were finishing tryouts before Christmas, which thwarted sports officials’ plans to finalize teams and rosters.

While waiting on the next update, Daly said high school athletes have been participating in individual workouts monitored by coaches via Google Classroom, and have a weekly team meeting to keep students engaged.

Team rosters have mostly “finalized themselves,” Daly said, based on which students are completing the virtual skills workouts.

He said he believes the increased interest in Nordic skiing is not just limited to high school students, since Nordic skis and snowshoes are sold out “all over the state of Maine right now” due to people wanting to get outside and be active during the pandemic.

Daly said there has also been heightened enthusiasm for the city’s co-op swim team, which is in its first year and has seen a higher number of student swimmers than expected.

Too many participants for swimming could be an issue from a facilities perspective, he added, because social distancing requirements limit the number of swimmers who can be in the pool.

Daly said waiting for color designation updates every two weeks has been frustrating, especially because it is difficult to “maintain momentum and engagement of kids” for a sport when they need to practice remotely at home.

He also said, however, the district’s sports officials went through a similar process last spring, so they have experience with successfully operating sports remotely. 

Additionally, he said he thought the 2020 fall sports season went “very well” and student athletes were “ecstatic” with the opportunity to play sports like flag football and outdoor volleyball. He thinks spring sports will go as smoothly, because the opportunity to play outside makes social distancing easier.

Portland will have to look to the MPA and the DOE for how to schedule games if Cumberland County is designated yellow for several more weeks. The state agencies cannot issue blanket guidelines for the state’s schools, Daly notes, because COVID-19 rates differ from county to county.

If the city schools cannot play winter sports until February or March, he said, it will be “better than nothing,” although teams may have to play condensed seasons with fewer games for sports like basketball, as soccer did in the fall.

Daly said watching the students be so excited to see one another at fall practices was gratifying, and many are “looking for an opportunity to connect” during the pandemic. He hopes winter athletes are able to have the same experience.

“The kids’ reactions when they would show up and see each other, I’ve never seen them so happy just to have a chance to connect with each other,” Daly said. “To be honest with you, it makes it all worth it.”

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