While plans for a winter high school sports season remain tenuous around the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the RSU 24 board of directors took proactive action this week and voted not to field high school and middle-school teams in their district.
RSU 24 includes Sumner Memorial High School in East Sullivan and serves the communities of Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor.
As was the case in early September when board members voted to cancel the district’s fall sports schedule, they opted during a virtual meeting on Tuesday to cancel the district’s winter sports at the high school and middle-school levels by separate 6-3 votes.
“In the end, the rise in [COVID case] numbers, the stress on resources and the inconsistency between the expectations during the day and the change, or reduction if you will, in expectations for after-school activities were the contributing factors,” RSU 24 Superintendent of Schools Michael Eastman said of the decisions.
Eastman said those reasons were similar to what spurred the board’s earlier vote to cancel fall sports.
“The mental health of our students is obviously a concern, but the physical health sort of takes priority over the whole situation,” he said. “Trying to find that balance has been extremely challenging in the uncertainty of these times and the unknown of how things are going to play out.
“Our decisions are often based on scientific research or a gold-standard program that’s been used and an experience that’s been had, but this is so new to us that there’s really not those resources to draw on.”
The cancellation of winter sports in RSU 24 marks the third straight sports season with no interscholastic sports at Sumner. Last spring’s schedules were canceled as part of the statewide shutdown of in-person learning in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic’s arrival in the United States last March.
This fall’s interscholastic sports in Maine included just a single state championship in golf. The cross country state meets were canceled just days before they were scheduled to be held.
No volleyball or tackle football was offered due to coronavirus concerns, and participants in the remaining fall sports sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association — field hockey, soccer and 7 vs. 7 touch/flag football — competed in limited regionalized schedules.
Maine’s winter sports season for high school sports already has been delayed. Skill and conditioning workouts tentatively are scheduled to start next Monday with formal practices to begin Dec. 14 and abbreviated regular-season schedules set to start no sooner than Jan. 11, 2021.
Those start dates may be at risk given the continuing surge in new COVID-19 cases around the state.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a record-high 349 new coronavirus cases across the state on Thursday. That marked the eighth time in the last 10 days that total had topped 200, and the first time in excess of 300.
Thursday’s report increased the state’s seven-day average for new coronavirus cases to 186.1, up from 169.7 a day ago, down from 220.3 a week ago and up from 90.4 a month ago.
Eastman, a former girls basketball coach at Sumner, said he is sympathetic to the special relationship between the people of Maine and the high school basketball tournament normally held each February. However, the MPA is not planning to host its traditional regional and statewide basketball tournaments in 2021.
“The winter season is absolutely the best season. The energy around that sport and being in the gym and all that goes with it, it defines a school culture and can truly transform it,” he said. “But the balance is, are we able to put our kids in the safest conditions to be successful? I think in the end that’s how it rubs out, that the board was not feeling like the kids could be safe in the gym or on the playing surface if you will.”