Devonte Scott of Edward Little pins his way to more yardage against Bangor in Auburn last fall. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The fate of fall high school sports in Maine will now be largely determined on local levels.

The state Department of Education gave schools the green light to offer in-person instruction for students this fall after it announced its color-coded advisory system for all counties Friday.

Coupled with the unveiling of plans on Thursday for fall sports, school administrators are optimistic games will be played.

“I really think it bodes well for some type of interscholastic athletics this fall,” Edward Little athletic director Todd Sampson said.

The state designated every Maine county as “green,” meaning the risk of COVID-19 is low. Red (high risk) and yellow (elevated risk) were the other possible options.

With schools able to explore in-person learning — so long as health and safety measures are implemented as required by the DOE — the return of high school sports will most likely be decided by superintendents in each district.

“What it means is optimism,” Maine Central Institute (Pittsfield) athletic director Jim Leonard said. “Fall sports is in the hands of superintendents.”

“That’s great news,” added John Suttie, principal at Old Orchard Beach High School and RSU 23 superintendent. “Now it’s just got to be green on Aug. 28. … I’m shocked. I was expecting yellow all day, every day, in our county.”

The DOE will be updating its three-tiered system every two weeks.

The announcement Friday comes a day after the Maine Principals’ Association provided new guidelines for a shortened fall season, as well as for coach-guided conditioning programs.

The MPA previously delayed the start of the fall sports season to Sept. 8, when teams can begin practicing. Competition is slated to begin Sept. 18.

Some superintendents and athletic directors were surprised to see their counties given the green designation. And some cautioned that much work needs to be done before athletics can begin.

“This is a step in the right direction. Even though it’s green we are still going to have all the guidelines to follow,” Sanford High School athletic director Gordon Salls said. “This doesn’t mean sports will return as it was before COVID started. We’re still going to have to follow all the guidelines. And it’s still going to be a challenge for some schools to have all their kids in school at once because of social distancing. I’m very happy we’re green but we still have a lot of work to do.”

While most of the state has been operating under Phase 2 of the MPA’s plan since July 20, superintendents in York and Cumberland counties have delayed permitting any in-person sports activities until at least Aug. 24.

Under Phase 2, teams are allowed to work out as a group with strict guidelines involving social distancing, such as prohibiting 1-on-1 drills, and coaches taking attendance at every workout to help with tracing of potential infections.

A worker maintains the grounds near a soccer goal Wednesday morning at Skowhegan Area High School. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Many schools have also required daily health screenings for athletes and coaches and making sure athletes wear masks whenever possible.

“Our teams and coaches have been doing a very good job with that,” said Sampson, who said 10 Edward Little athletic programs are expected to resume workouts under Phase 3 on Monday. “The community and parents have been following all of the procedures. I think everybody is wanting to get back to some type of normalcy.”

Added Suttie: “Now it goes back to us being able to implement health and safety standards and being able to overcome the logistical obstacles that those health and safety standards could create. There’s no question there are significant barriers for athletics as a whole, but we all know that those barriers in some sports are easier to overcome than others.”

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Yarmouth schools, said maintaining the green designation will be the key, which means strictly following the state safety guidelines. When it comes to sports, ensuring protective measures and social distancing rules are followed by teams and fans is important, he said.

Oak Hill’s Julie Mooney and Lisbon’s Natalie Scott both get a stick on the ball during a Class C quarterfinal at Oak Hill High School last October. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“For athletics, that may mean games with limited fans in restricted seating areas and significant limitations on some activities where students are in physical contact with one another,” Dolloff said. “Still — we all have to be happy with the fact that we’re green — it’s a tribute to the steps we’ve taken as a state and as individuals to contain the spread of the virus.”

Oak Hill athletic director Jim Palmer said the statewide green designations were particularly good news for the Wales school, which draws from Kennebec County and harder-hit Androscoggin County.

“It makes it a little bit of an easier process. If one was another color, one’s green, one’s yellow, or one’s yellow, one’s red, then you’ve got to try to figure out which way to go with it,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I try not to get too optimistic, because things can change.”

Gardiner athletic director Nate Stubbert acknowledged being surprised that all counties were labeled green, and said he hopes this gives tentative administrators more peace of mind going into the season.

“I think it’s great. … The most optimistic you can be is having the whole state be green,” he said. “I hope that they’re cautiously optimistic with this announcement, knowing that schools are going to take all the necessary measurements that they need to to ensure safety for all the students.”

“We want it to be safe for coaches, faculty and administrators as well,” Sampson said.

Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse and Portland Press Herald staff writer Mike Lowe contributed to this report.

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