BAR HARBOR — The Maine Principals’ Association has given sports the OK to return — but the governing body must revise its plan before any athletic activities can take place this fall.
The MPA last Thursday unanimously approved a decision to go forward with a 2020 fall sports season. Yet on Tuesday, the return of high school sports was dealt a setback as state agencies recommended the MPA further delay the season. The MPA received a letter from Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Commissioner of Education Pender Makin detailing concerns with the high school sports governing body’s plans for a return to play.
The MPA’s plan, the letter stated, contained a few rules that “did not comport” with state guidelines. The agencies’ list of shortcomings included the MPA’s rules on masks and face coverings, recommendation of 3-6 feet of spacing and “[silence] on the interaction with schools’ plans.”
“We would like to know, at your earliest convenience, if the MPA plans on modifying its guidance, and, if so, how,” the letter stated. “We urge you to consider extending your delayed start date for fall sports.”
Under the MPA’s current proposal, countable games, matches and meets cannot be held until Sept. 18 for soccer, cross-country, volleyball, golf and field hockey and Sept. 25 for football. A timetable for when such a season would conclude has yet to be established.
At last Thursday’s meeting, the MPA made an “easy” decision in approving golf, a “low-risk” activity that Sports Medicine Committee Chairman William Heinz noted as having been played safely this summer under Maine State Golf Association guidelines. Those guidelines prohibit pin removals, the use of bunker rakes and groups of more than four players.
Athletes competing in cross-country, another “low-risk” activity must be masked prior to and immediately following the conclusion of races. Courses will be widened throughout and provide large finish-line chutes for runners, who are likely to be given staggered start times and will be asked not to collapse to the ground after reaching the finish line.
“One of the things we deal with in cross-country is athletes reaching the finish line and then collapsing at the finish,” Heinz said. “Well, that’s not going to work; it’s too much of a logjam, and we’ve got to keep those kids moving through there.”
Field hockey, which is not offered at Mount Desert Island High School or any of the other Hancock County high schools, will introduce longer intermissions and only allow teams to make only one substitution at a time. Soccer will allow a maximum of five players surrounding the goalkeeper inside the 6-yard box on corner kicks, prohibit slide-tackling within 6 feet and implement breaks for hydration and sanitization.
Soccer is the only sport for which the risk is categorized differently by NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) guidelines, which classify it as “moderate-risk,” and the state’s guidelines on community sports, which classify it as “high-risk.” Yet after deliberation, the MPA Soccer Committee categorized the sport as a moderate-risk activity without making drastic changes to how the game is played.
“With soccer, it’s not like football, where you’re in someone’s face all the time,” said Ellsworth High School Athletic Director Josh Frost, who is also the Soccer Committee chairman. “We talked about things like getting rid of throw-ins and headers, but we didn’t want to change the rules so much that it compromised the integrity of the game.”
Volleyball, another moderate-risk sport and the only fall athletic activity to be played indoors, would also see some major changes in 2020. Those in the gymnasium during matches — including players on the floor — would be required to wear masks at all times, and teams would not rotate sides of the court between sets.
Football, the lone high-risk sport to be offered in the fall under the MPA’s current plan, was the subject of much more controversy. Although Heinz agreed with the sport’s classification as a high-risk activity, he cited the lack of any major outbreaks stemming from the roughly 1,000 high school football games played thus far in 2020 as a major reason for the sport’s tentative approval.
“Overall, football may not be as risky as we think it is,” Heinz said. “With the other sports, I look at it as we’ve given them a green light; with football, I look at it that we’ve given them a blinking yellow light, and if anything happens throughout the country or within the state of Maine as far as increased transmission, then we are going to pull that recommendation.”
The MPA’s decision last week came a day after the governing body’s Sports Medicine Committee made formal recommendations for each fall sport. Some of those recommendations, particularly the approval of football, came as somewhat of a surprise to athletic directors and other administrators around the state.
“I was surprised but certainly relieved that they went forward with all sports being offered,” MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow said. “There were some times along the way when we thought that would never happen, so it’s great to be in a position now where we might be able to do it.”
If sports are played this fall, games will still be subject to 100-person and 50-person limits on outdoor and indoor gatherings, respectively. Players, coaches, referees, medical trainers, administrators and media members would all count toward those totals, leaving little room, if any, for spectators.
In some cases, teams could have to reduce roster sizes in order to keep events within the aforementioned state guidelines on gatherings. Cross-country and football teams frequently boast roster sizes of 50 athletes or more, a situation that would be a boon in most years but is instead problematic in the era of social distancing.
“If you look at schools like Thornton Academy or Bonny Eagle, their football teams have 80 people on the roster,” Frost said. “You’re already cutting it pretty close right there, and that doesn’t account for the coaches, the officials or the opposing team. … These are some difficult decisions that each school has to talk about as an administrative team.”
Fall sports have been called off completely in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. A number of other states have moved football, soccer and/or other high-contact sports to the spring while pushing start dates for other sports to later in the fall.
The MPA plan would allow teams to begin practices on the previously agreed-upon date of Sept. 8. Yet MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham clarified last Thursday that individual school districts may push back the start of practices to a later date if necessary.
“It is not a mandate that you have to start on that day,” Burnham said. “We have heard from some districts that they are looking at postponing that start date. … That local decision would be supported by our office and all of our school committees.”
Last month, Camden Hills Regional High School became the first school in the state to announce it would not be offering sports this fall. Other high schools, such as Orono and Gardiner, announced immediately after the MPA gave its approval that they would be offering 2020 fall seasons.
Locally, Deer Isle-Stonington High School has already announced it will not be offering soccer this fall. That decision was made after the school district’s board voted at its most recent meeting to cancel fall sports that could not meet Maine Department of Education guidelines for social distancing.
“This was not an easy decision for our school board to make or for me to recommend as we both know the importance that after-school activities play in many of our students’ lives,” School Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington wrote in an email to parents. “It is our hope to still have fall golf and cross-country following social distancing expectations.”
Ellsworth, Frost said, is awaiting final word from the state before it makes any decisions on the coming season. Dow, who met with MDI Regional School System Superintendent Marc Gousse on Friday, said his school is also awaiting the state’s recommendation, though he expressed guarded optimism that MDI will be able to offer at least some activities.
“Our coaches have already reported back that they’re ready to go, and I know the kids are excited about the possibility, too,” Dow said. “I think we can do it, but there’s still some research I want to do before we get things started. The last thing anyone wants to do is do something reckless that starts an outbreak.”