The Gardiner and Cony field hockey teams play a Drive-Out Cancer game last season in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced a school reopening plan Friday — one that will impact high school sports this fall.

The plan, developed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Center for Disease Control, revealed that counties will be assigned a color based on their risk for COVID-19 transmission, and that color will affect how schools are able to go into the upcoming school year.

Counties designated red are at high risk and should not conduct in-classroom learning. Yellow counties are at an elevated risk and should adopt a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, while green counties are at low risk and can do classroom learning with safety precautions.

Maine Principals’ Association Executive Director Mike Burnham, describing athletics as an extension of the classroom, said a red designation would likely rule out sports for the county’s schools. Burnham also said the MPA is leaving open the possibility of postponing the start date for fall sports. Practices are scheduled to begin on Aug. 17, and regular-season competition for most fall sports would start the first week of September. 

“I think that would be a decision that each school would make,” he said. “But if they’re in the red category and they can’t be in school, I don’t see how they could have an athletic program going.”

It is unknown, however, which color each county will be, or if any will get a red label. When asked if the announcement jeopardized the fall season, Burnham stopped short. 

“Until we have that information and know what that looks like, I’m not sure that that’s a question I have an answer for,” he said.

Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties have the highest confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to recent Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens emphasized that the zones were just a “starting point.”

“The data they’ve been presenting ever since this started in March has suggested that Maine is not all one color, in terms of that traffic light model,” he said. “Those designations may change over time. My understanding is we’ll be getting bi-weekly updates to show where the counties are.”

Messalonskee athletic director Chad Foye said it was encouraging to hear of some possibility for in-person learning.

Gary Stevens, director of athletics and student activities at Thornton Academy, has hopes his school can have some sort of fall sports season. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

“The positive is that they’re looking at opening schools,” he said. “If we have school going on, then we can have sports. That’s a positive thing. The tough part is there’s so much that’s still up in the air as to what your designation’s going to be, and what that designation means for your school.”

The athletic directors know the concerns, however. Thornton Academy is in York County, the second-hardest hit county in the state behind Cumberland.

“If we end up being a red (county), that will be a very, very tough, bitter pill to swallow for many,” Stevens said. “But we’ve been resilient to date, our chins are still up, we keep working hard, and we’re hopeful that we’re able to offer some activities this fall. … We want to offer as robust a program as possible.”

In preparation for the season, Burnham said the MPA has been considering contingency plans. One possibility is pushing the start of the season to later in the fall — a move made by Vermont earlier this month.

“It is certainly a consideration that we are looking at,” he said. “There’s nothing that is formalized yet, but certainly, the wheels are moving.”

The MPA has also discussed the option of allowing some sports but canceling others, based on the risk associated with each.

“Right now, we’re working with all fall activities,” Burnham said. “If you’re watching what’s happening, it’s one or two states across the country — the hotspots, really — they’re looking at canceling football. We don’t want to do that.”

Schools administrators will likely have to get creative, including new ideas of competition.

“Our backup plan (for cross country) is … Forest Hills goes and runs on Monday, we have a neutral timekeeper go and take times with our kids. On Tuesday, Richmond goes and does it,” Forest Hills athletic director Anthony Amero said. “On Wednesday, Valley goes. On Thursday, Temple Academy. And then on Friday we get an email that says, ‘Congratulations to these two teams, you won the boys, you won the girls.’ It’s a creative way, but we could do it.”

Foye said schools need to be flexible.

“We’ve had conversations about … doing some things that may be a little different,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready to change (our schedules) fairly quickly. We know change is coming, we’re not really sure what that change is going to be yet.”

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