AUGUSTA  — State officials countered the Maine Principals’ Association’s plans for fall high school sports Tuesday in a strongly worded letter that also urged the organization to delay the season until safety guidelines can be reviewed further.

The letter — signed by Commissioner of Education Pender Makin and Commissioner of Department of Health and Human Services Jeanne Lambrew — cited several instances in which the MPA failed to follow the state’s COVID-19 safety guidelines while developing its plan for the return of sports.

State officials also wrote that their concerns go beyond high school athletics because of the potential risk to communities. High school sports, they wrote, are unlike professional organizations such as the National Basketball Association or National Hockey League, which resumed play this summer because they could operate in a bubble within host cities.

“If the schools had the resources like professional and some collegiate sports leagues to conduct frequent team testing and house teams separately to protect other students, school staff, and their families, it might be possible to return to interscholastic competition safely. Without that, such a return poses a risk of spreading COVID-19 across the state, within schools, and to vulnerable people within communities,” the letter stated.

The letter also criticized the MPA for hastily voting to advance all fall sports Aug. 27 before the state could review the guidelines.

“On Thursday, August 27, 2020, MPA shared its guidance in its entirety only hours before its Interscholastic Management Committee was scheduled to vote on the guidance, leaving us inadequate time to review and provide appropriate feedback in advance of the vote. You acknowledged at the time your interest in feedback nonetheless and your intent to align this guidance with State guidance,” the letter stated.

The state also addressed community sports guidelines issues with the MPA, stating the following: “The MPA Guidance does not include any modifications to the types of play for sports based on risk. Under the MPA Guidance, student athletes in even the highest risk sports can compete as they did preCOVID, including within-team competition, between local teams, between teams statewide regardless of the color classification of counties in the School Health Advisory System, and between teams from out of state including states that are not exempt from Maine’s requirement for quarantine or testing. The Community Sports Guidance document does not permit competitions outside of scrimmages within the team for high-risk sports. The combination of travel and close contact in certain sports increases the risk of accelerating coronavirus spread. This is why colleges and universities in New England have largely canceled intercollegiate athletic competition this fall.”

MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham responded to the state’s letter, saying “we appreciate their suggestions and will continue to work cooperatively with those state agencies.”

Concerns were also raised with volleyball, the only fall sport played indoors, and football, leaving those sports in jeopardy. Soccer, meanwhile, was moved from high to medium risk, leaving open the possibility it can be played in some capacity this fall.

“We would like to know, at your earliest convenience, if the MPA plans on modifying its guidance and, if so, how? Additionally, given that it is September 1, we urge you to consider extending your delayed start date for fall sports as many other interscholastic sports bodies in other states have done to allow for sufficient time to resolve the concerns expressed in this letter and to allow for appropriate time for implementation,” the letter stated.

 

The MPA’s 12-member Interscholastic Management Committee unanimously voted Aug. 27 to allow all sports — including contact sports such as soccer and football — to be played this fall. The vote followed the recommendation of the group’s Sports Medicine Committee.

However, a state spokesperson said it reviewed the MPA’s fall sports guidelines upon request to ensure they met COVID-19 safety guidelines. That unexpected decision came less than two weeks after a DOE spokesperson said, “As we have throughout this pandemic, we will strive to work in a collaborative manner with the MPA. Any decision about interscholastic sports will be made by the MPA.”

The MPA previously announced official team practices can start Sept. 8, with games beginning no sooner than Sept. 18. The first football games were slated to kick off Sept. 25.

Erskine Academy field hockey players go through a conditioning drill Aug. 4 at the South China school. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

However, football and volleyball will be difficult to play under the revised community sports guidelines.

The state expressed the following concerns to the MPA: face coverings, keeping spectators at sporting events 3 to 6 feet apart, and protocol if a student-athlete comes in contact with a person who is a confirmed positive for COVID-19. The MPA’s fall sports guidelines called for parents to notify schools in that instance. However, the DOE also recommended that anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 isolate for 14 days. Those that came in contact with someone who tested positive would also need to quarantine.

“The MPA face covering guidance is largely but not fully consistent with State guidance,” the letter stated. “According to Executive Order 49 FY 19/20, ‘individuals must wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain.’ Beyond exceptions for young children and certain people with medical conditions, face coverings are not required during vigorous activity. However, at all other times including during low to moderate intensity exercises, in bench areas, during coaching strategy sessions, and other circumstances where physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain, sports participants must wear a face covering — along with coaches, officials, and others involved in school sports.”

A few districts — including Orono and Gardiner — had already decided to play fall sports pending the state review, while others took a wait-and-see approach. Camden Hills, meanwhile, had already opted out.

There was mixed reaction from school officials around the state.

“I’m shocked and disappointed, to say the least,” Gardiner athletic director Nate Stubbert said. “This whole time we’ve been hearing about looking at the science, looking at the data to kind of steer the decision. … They should be looking at the information that these athletes have been playing organized sports all summer long. Not one case. And the MPA and their sports medicine committees, they’ve all done the work. … I hate to say it, but I believe a lot of it is very political. And it’s unfortunate that kids have to suffer because of adults playing political games.”

Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton said the state’s call to further delay the season will make it difficult for sports to be played.

“I personally think we’re out of time,” he said. “My suggestion at this point would be move to looking at a spring season, so at least we have a shot at something. … If we start it and we screw it up, we’re going to lose it. If we move it to the spring, then I think we’ve got a shot.”

Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association — the parent organization of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association — said he’s pleased with the state’s response to the MPA. The move takes pressure off local school boards and superintendents, Bailey said.

“One of the things we’ve been advocating for is to see if all parties can operate under the same set of standards. And that’s what this does,” Bailey said. “It’s still a wait-and-see (proposition) for sure, and to be honest, I am glad the DHHS and DOE came to that conclusion.”

John Suttie, superintendent of schools and principal at Old Orchard Beach High School, said he was disappointed to see the decision will be dragged out longer.

“It’s very disappointing that here we are on Sept. 1 and we still don’t have any final degree of clarity,” Suttie said. “Our position has always been, we’re going to allow our students to participate in whatever is allowable within the guidelines we’re presented. We’re not going to make a decision different as a district from what is allowed.”

Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens said he and his fellow athletic directors will continue to prepare so that they’re ready to implement a plan when a final decision does come.

Gardiner football players enter practice Tuesday after being screened and receiving hand sanitizer. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“Ideally, we would have had this process concluded by now. But athletic directors have always been able to adapt. We always have the ability to try to come up with Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. For many of us, we’re working on Plan E. … Certainly, once the final decision is made, we will do everything in our power to make it work for students and offer as high quality and robust a sports experience as we can. At the point, with the fall creeping up, we need to know what our direction is very soon,” Stevens said.

Brunswick football coach Dan Cooper said he was gutted by the state’s response Tuesday.

“I’m really bummed out and very disappointed. I’ve got 45, 50 kids that were looking forward to playing football,” he said. “We wanted a chance to repeat as Northern B champs. We were going for a three-peat. Now we don’t have a chance. These kids are going to forever have a bad taste in their mouth, that they didn’t get to play their senior year.”

Gray-New Gloucester athletic director Susan Robbins was holding a fall sports information night Tuesday and planned to speak with parents about what the school was going to offer.

“I am going to address the letter that was sent today,” she said. “But, basically, I’ll let them know that once the (final) decision has been made, coaches will have plans for both options: interscholastic athletics, and if we can only offer something in house.”

Robbins added that she doesn’t think the door has completely closed on a fall sports season.

“I do think that there is some silver lining that coaches can find to work with those kids still,” she said. “It’s a great time to build culture, student leadership, those types of things. I have two sons who play football so I understand the heartache that will come with that.”

 

Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel writers Dave Dyer and Drew Bonifant, and Portland Press Herald writers Mike Lowe and Steve Craig contributed to this story. 

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