What will high school sports look like this fall? It’s complicated

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Members of the Skowhegan girls’ soccer team go through drills during a preseason workout on Thursday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

After months of uncertainty, high school athletes and coaches were buoyed last week when the Maine Principals’ Association voted to move forward with all fall sports.

But many school superintendents across the state were surprised, if not upset, that all sports – including football – were approved.

At the heart of the matter is whether sports can be played safely while schools are scrambling to reopen – and stay open – during the coronavirus pandemic.

The MPA was thought to have the final word on whether schools would be allowed to play sports, but state officials have intervened. They are examining the association’s safety protocols for each sport to see if they meet the state’s COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Given how COVID-19 can be easily transmitted from one individual to another, including from those exhibiting no symptoms, the decision has safety implications for the general public.

Meanwhile, the wait continues for frustrated high school teams as September nears.

How did we get to this point in the effort to restart high school sports? And what will those sports look like if they are played?

Here are some answers:

Q: Who makes the call on whether sports will be played?

Throughout the summer, committees within the Maine Principals’ Association worked to prepare safety guidelines for the return of high schools during the pandemic. Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA’s Division of Interscholastic Activities, said the nonprofit association was in close contact with officials in various state agencies to help ensure to the safe resumption of sports.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education emphasized that the MPA would decide whether fall sports can be played. “Ultimately, any decision about interscholastic sports will be made by the MPA,” a department spokeswoman told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on Aug. 18.

On Wednesday, after the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee recommended that all sports be played this fall, Burnham said he state reached out to the MPA and asked them to review the committee’s guidelines.

Agencies expected to be part of the decision-making include the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Economic and Community Development, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the office of Gov. Janet Mills.

Jeanne Lambrew, the Health and Human Services commissioner, did not give a timetable for when the state will make a decision.

While Burnham said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the MPA’s recommendation to play fall sports under its COVID-19 guidelines will be accepted, he said the association would abide by whatever rulings the state makes.

Ultimately, whether the state approves all or part of the MPA plans, superintendents and school boards will decide if the sports are to be played in their communities.

Q: If football is classified as a high-risk activity, why was it given the go-ahead?

Throughout the summer, Dr. William Heinz had stated that it was going to be difficult to play football this fall. Heinz, a prominent retired orthopedic surgeon, is chairman of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee and a former chairman of the Sports and Sports Medicine Committee for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

His opinion changed last week when he contacted Bob Colgate, the current chairman of the NFHS Sports and Sports Medicine Committee. He asked Colgate for some guidance regarding football. Sixteen states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, will not play tackle football this fall.

Colgate told Heinz that seven states had already begun playing football games. That amounted to about 1,000 games. Schools in those states had also been involved in at least two weeks of preseason practices. At the time of their conversation, said Heinz, “there were no reported incidences of transmission.”

That’s when Heinz reconsidered his stance and decided to give football a chance. Heinz noted that after that conversation, two high school football teams in Alaska reported incidences of transmission. Still, he felt, football deserved what he calls “the blinking yellow light.”

By that, he means the other fall sports sponsored by the MPA – cross country, golf, field hockey, volleyball and soccer – have the green light to play. But football would be under a caution blinking yellow. And with good reason, because in the last few days, football teams in Utah and Ohio have had players test positive for COVID-19.

Mt. Ararat’s Holden Brannan tries to break a tackle attempt by Yarmouth’s David Riddle, center, and Blake Venden. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“If things change in those seven states, outbreaks and the (transmission) rate gets above 1 percent, we’re going to shut it down in Maine,” said Heinz. “But to just shoot it down and deny those players the opportunity to get together with their teammates and start training and start playing, I felt that would be unfair to those players.”

The fact that football has added a third week of preseason allows Maine officials to gather even more data on COVID-19, not only in other states, but at home.

“We’re hoping that the modifications that we put in place can keep it relatively safe,” said Heinz. “I just didn’t feel right denying those kids the chance.”

Heinz realizes that there are those who say this is the wrong decision.

“The easy decision would have been to say no,” he said. “The hard decision was to say yes.”

Q: Will all schools play sports this fall?

No. Already, Camden Hills Regional High announced that it will not compete in any interscholastic sports this fall. Others seem likely to follow.

The Maine School Board Association sent a letter to the MPA on Wednesday citing its opposition to the return of sports, and the Maine School Superintendents Association sent a letter stating its concerns over the return of sports.

However, just hours after the MPA approved plans for the fall season on Thursday, school boards in Orono and Gardiner decided to play sports if the state approves the MPA’s guidelines.

Deer Isle-Stonington will not play soccer but will compete in golf and cross country – dual meets only with staggered start times.

SU 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington, who oversees Deer Isle-Stonington, was critical of the decision to play contact sports such as soccer.

“The bottom line for me is having one set of strong, spread-reducing guidelines for our kids and staff while they are in school and another set less stringent and less spread-reducing after school is idiocy,” he said.

Q: Can students opt out of playing this fall?

Certainly. In its Return to Competition for Competitive Athletics and Activities in Maine, the MPA states, “Individuals should discuss the risk of COVID-19 with their primary care provider to determine if sports activities are a safe option for them or their child.”

It goes on to say that schools should “consider offering options for individuals at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as virtual coaching and in-home drills that limit their exposure risk.”

Greely boys’ soccer Coach Mike Andreasen said he already has had two players opt out of the season.

Q: When would the season begin?

Originally, official team practices were to have started in mid-August and the first games were to have been played later this week, just ahead of Labor Day weekend.

Official team practices for fall sports are scheduled to begin on Sept. 8. Contests for most sports would start no sooner than Sept. 18 – except for football games, with would begin on Sept. 25. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The MPA announced in July that the season would be pushed back, with official practices to start on Sept. 8 and games starting no sooner than Sept. 18. Last week, the first football games were delayed until Sept. 25.

Even if sports are approved, there could be more delays. According to the MPA’s Burnham, schools can choose to start at a later date.

At least one York County coach expects the starting date to be moved back, to allow the students more time to get into shape. Schools in Cumberland and York counties have been unable to participate in the MPA’s summer conditioning workouts.

Q: What will schedules look like?

Teams will play fewer games than in a typical fall because of the shortened season.

“I think we’re looking to play six to eight games in all sports,” said Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell.

The MPA has directed schools to pull together regionalized schedules, with games against the closest schools possible. The goal is to minimize travel and limit the time players spend together on a bus.

That may mean a team in a larger enrollment class ends up playing a nearby school in a smaller enrollment class. However, schools will attempt to make sure “it is a safe and reasonably competitive game,” said Fred Lower, the athletic director at Hampden Academy and chairman of the MPA’s Football Committee.

Lower said his football team, which is in Class C this year, would play Bangor (Class A), Brewer (Class B), Hermon, John Bapst, Old Town and Nokomis (all Class C).

This scheduling may bring back old rivalries. Joe Schwartzman, the athletic director at Kennebunk, said the Rams are looking at playing against Wells. Buzzell said Marshwood would play York.

Q: Will there be playoffs?

The MPA has yet to officially develop a playoff plan, but hopes to hold some form of playoffs. Burnham has said that the dialogue from school officials has been that the “kids want to play for something.”

There has been talk of using an open tournament format which would allow all schools entry into the postseason. That would be needed if a regionalized schedule is used, to offset Heal point disadvantages created by having a Class A school play a Class C school.

“This virus is going to decide if we are able to complete a season,” said Burnham.

Q: Will athletes have to wear face masks?

Volleyball is the only sport requiring players to wear face masks during competition, while golfers have the option of wearing a mask if they prefer. MPA officials felt it would place a burden on athletes in high aerobic sports to make them wear a mask.

Volleyball is the only sport in which players will have to wear face masks during competition. It’s also the only fall sport played indoors. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

However, players must wear a mask as they approach and leave the playing field. And they are required to wear a mask while they watch from the sidelines. If a player is substituted into the game, he or she can take the mask off to go into the game. The exception is football. Football players on the sidelines will not have to wear masks under their helmets.

Cross country runners are required to wear a mask as they approach the starting line – either a disposable one to be discarded into a trash can or a cloth one that they will carry through the race – and put it on when they finish.

Coaches will be required to wear masks at all times. The MPA is not mandating masks for game officials, but with the median age of Maine high school officials at 54, it is likely that some wear will a mask. If a mask is worn, the official would use an electronic whistle.

Q: Will games look different?

Yes. Each sport will have several modifications made to it to make it safer.

In addition, all pregame meetings with officials have been modified to include fewer coaches and players. And time has been added to timeouts and at the intermissions to allow players to adequately hydrate. Players are required to bring their own clearly marked water bottles.

In soccer, for example, the slide tackle within 6 feet of another player has been eliminated. On corner kicks and thrown-ins, only five offensive and five defensive players will be allowed in the box, along with the goalkeeper. On direct and indirect free kicks, players must maintain 3 feet of distance between them, eliminating the defensive wall set up in front of the keeper. The drop-ball restart has been eliminated.

In cross country, the courses will be expanded to be a minimum of 6-feet wide, allowing for social distancing. Starts will be staggered. The finish will also be widened and runners are encouraged to leave the area quickly after they finish.

Q: Will fans be allowed at games?

Maybe. It will be a local decision. And if there are fans, they will be limited. According to guidelines provided by the MPA, schools must follow state guidelines for size limits: maximum of 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.

It is the MPA’s understanding that players, coaches, officials, game personnel and cheerleaders will count toward that number.

“I don’t know what that will add up to, but it will be close to 100 in a football game,” said Sanford Athletic Director Gordie Salls. “Even in soccer or field hockey, you’ve got varsity and JV teams onsite. It’s going to make it difficult.”

Yarmouth High fans cheer from the bleachers during an eight-man football game last fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff said schools are working to provide viewing opportunities for their fans.

“One thing is quite clear,” he said. “If we do end up having contests, it is unlikely we will have fans in attendance due to the restrictions on gatherings of more than 100 people outside or 50 inside, so we’re also working on plans to stream games and provide families and others the opportunity to watch these athletes compete.”

The NFHS has offered each school in the nation two cameras – one for an outdoor activity and one for an indoor activity – to livestream events through the for-subscription NFHS Network. Since making the announcement about three weeks ago, 5,000 schools, including Marshwood, have applied for the cameras.

Athletic directors are hoping that new guidelines would be provided by the state for spectators at sporting events.

Q: Will locker rooms be used?

The MPA is recommending that all visiting teams arrive ready to play, with uniforms on (or mostly on) and with their own balls for warm-ups. Burnham said, “The use of the home locker room is a local decision.”

Marshwood High, for example, has banned locker room use completely. “Our kids are taking their equipment home at night,” said Buzzell, the athletic director.

How will transportation to away games work?

Schools have been working on these logistics for months and are still waiting to find out how many students and coaches can be allowed on a bus.

Whoever is on the bus will be required to wear a mask. Regionalized scheduling will reduce the amount of time on the bus and possible exposure to the virus.

“I think most schools will be in a shuttle situation,” said Sanford Athletic Director Gordie Salls. “Go drop off the JV team and then come back and get the varsity team, and vice versa after the game.”

Q: What happens if a team member tests positive for COVID-19?

It’s happened already. Two athletes at Foxcroft Academy tested positive earlier this month while the school was holding MPA-sanctioned workouts on its campus.

And it’s likely to happen again. In Iowa, baseball and softball are played in June and July. During the regular season, at least 25 baseball teams and 20 softball teams – roughly 7 percent of all teams – had to cancel games because of players or coaches testing positive.

Maine has devised protocols for schools to follow should a student or teacher test positive for COVID-19.

John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach, said those protocols will be the same for athletes. At RSU 23, for a student who has tested positive for COVID-19 to return to school, he or she would have to be fever-free for 24 hours and have gone at least 10 days since the symptoms first appeared, or had two negative test results taken more than 24 hours apart.

Heinz, of the MPA, said if an athlete tests positive, his or her team would “essentially go into quarantine, along with anyone they had close contact with.”

It would be a two-week quarantine, for both practices and games. Once everyone is cleared, they could resume play.

“There are some big teams out there,” he said. “There’s no doubt there is a risk associated with it.”


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