Falmouth High soccer coach Dave Halligan is one of many frustrated by delays to the fall sports season: “The way they’re handling this season we really don’t know who’s making the decision.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As schools across the state reopen in the coming days, Maine remains one of the few states yet to reach a consensus about the restart of high school sports during the coronavirus pandemic.

The drawn-out decision-making process – which has involved the Maine Principals’ Association, the governor’s office and multiple state agencies – has frustrated athletes, coaches and school administrators, and left many wondering who is calling the shots about the fall season.

“The way they’re handling this season we really don’t know who’s making the decision,” said David Halligan, a veteran soccer and basketball coach at Falmouth High.

On the surface that would be the principals’ association, which oversees high school sports in Maine. They had hoped to make a decision on the fall season by Aug. 18 – nearly three weeks ago.

“Ultimately it is going to be the MPA to put out the guidelines,” a Department of Education spokesperson said last week.

But the call on fall sports has become far more complex, and raises questions about whether all parties involved have been on the same page. Critics say that state agencies and other stakeholders should have been aligned with the MPA much earlier in the process, given that a potential virus outbreak would affect not only schools, but communities at large.

The MPA reached out to the state for guidance in the days leading up to Aug. 18, citing differences in guidelines from two state agencies that made it impossible for the association to make a decision. The MPA had been working exclusively with DOE for months on its plans for resuming sports; now it would also have to work with two other state agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The principals’ association was instructed to refer to the state’s Community Sports guidelines in devising its plans for fall sports, but there was a lack of clarity about how closely the MPA should adhere to those guidelines. When the association voted on Aug. 27 to recommend that all sports should be played this fall – including football, a sport deemed “high risk” in the Community Sports guidelines – the state acted decisively.

In a strongly worded letter, state health and education officials last week urged the MPA to delay the season while the association works to align its safety protocols with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines and its Community Sports guidelines, which were updated on Tuesday. The start of team practices, already pushed back from Aug. 17 to Sept. 8, was delayed again until Sept. 14.

“I’m sure everyone is doing their best to make sure we can offer programming in a safe manner,” said Yarmouth Schools Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. “I just wish there had been a multi-agency group working on this back in May and June, as was done on a wide variety of other fronts. This was a ‘miss,’ and it was a big miss. But everyone is learning as they go through this, and we should be in better shape for decisions around winter and spring sports.”

On Wednesday, a joint news release from the principals’ association, the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Mills administration emphasized collaboration as the parties seek a solution for fall sports.

“We will work closely and collaboratively with the Administration to modify our guidance and arrive at a solution that will honor the State’s safety protocols and protect the health and safety of student athletes along with their communities,” MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said in the release.

Gov. Janet Mills made her first significant comment on high school sports in the release. Mills noted that she was a “firm believer” in the value of interscholastic sports, but it was clear her larger concern is about community and statewide safety. She asked state commissioners to work with the MPA to address concerns about guidance quickly “with the most important goal in mind: protecting the health and safety of Maine students, their extended families, their teachers and fellow students and all members of our broader Maine community.”

They’re working together now, but communication has been lacking along the way. Burnham said he had been unaware until Tuesday that plans had been underway to update the Community Sports guidelines that the MPA has been instructed to follow. Jeanne Lambrew, the DHHS commissioner, acknowledged that no one had informed the MPA that updates were pending.

A DETOUR IN MAKING PLANS

The Maine Principals’ Association’s decision to recommend that football should be played this fall was a surprise to many, and alarming to some. Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal

Determining the safest way to resume interscholastic sports has been an issue for every state. Several are opting not to play any sports until November at the earliest. At least 18 states are saying no to tackle football this fall, including Rhode Island and Connecticut, which announced their decisions on Friday. Fourteen states made no changes at all to their fall athletic offerings.

The spring sports season was shut down by the principals’ association on April 9, but the MPA had already started meeting with the state Department of Education two or three times a week by March to work on a solution for resuming high school sports.

“The coordinated efforts of these organizations have been critical in aligning our guidance and decision making to ensure the health and safety of our staff and students, including the unenviable task that the MPA and their committees face regarding high school athletics,” DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said in late July.

With coaches, players and administrators asking that the MPA allow some sort of athletic activities in the summer, the MPA worked on establishing guidelines for voluntary summer workouts. Those came out in June, with Phases I and II. Phases III and IV were released in July. Burnham said throughout that process the MPA was working with state educational associations. “I think that we’ve done our due diligence and tried to move forward with the best plan for students’ health and safety,” he said.

It was then, in July, that the MPA began to look at fall sports, applying guidelines from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Individual sport committees met to work out details for safety protocols specific to their sports. The MPA targeted Aug. 18 as a day to make a decision about which high school sports would be offered this fall.

But Burnham was thrown for a loop when the Department of Education released guidelines on Aug. 12 for in-school safety, including a directive that in physical education courses physical distance between people would need to be 14 feet if masks weren’t worn.

Burnham has said that when that edict came out, he initially felt there was no way any fall sports could be held. “Working under those guidelines, we didn’t think it was possible to move forward,” he said.

The next day, he reached out to state officials, noting that the state Department of Economic and Community Development also had guidelines – the Community Sports guidelines – that were creating confusion for school administrators because some of its recommended safety protocols differed from the Department of Education’s guidelines. How should he proceed, he asked.

Burnham was told on Aug. 19 that the DOE guidelines did not extend to interscholastic sports, which were voluntary. In an email, the Department of Health and Human Services told him that the Community Sports guidelines were close to what the MPA sought.

“Although not explicitly developed for this purpose, DECD’s community sports guidance is most applicable to school-based sports programs, and it would be appropriate for you to use this guidance to assist you in your decision-making process for interscholastic sports,” the email from DHHS stated.

Still, Burnham was unclear about how to proceed, and turned to the Department of Education for advice.

“I have reached out to the commissioner’s office to say, ‘Are you really trying to open this up for the same as the community health guidelines or are you allowing us to use that as a starting point to develop guidelines that would fit for both school and community based?’” he said at the time. “That’s where we’re at.”

The principals’ association went back to work on its plans for the fall, asking the state to eventually review its safety protocols. But apparently there was confusion over whether the Community Sports guidelines should be used as a “starting point” and whether, as DHHS stated, they were simply “guidance to assist you” in making decisions about fall sports. The Community Sports guidelines labeled soccer and football as high-risk sports in which games between teams should not be played.

The MPA also incorporated guidelines from the national federation, which listed soccer as a medium-risk sport but football as high-risk. And that became an issue. When it became apparent that after-school athletics would operate under guidelines different from those for in-school learning, red flags went up from educational groups, according to Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“If we’re going to be following one set of expectations from 7:30 to 2:30 why can’t those same set of expectations be expected of students participating in school-sponsored activities?” Bailey asked.

All through the process, Burnham knew that football would be a difficult sport to play in the fall. But Dr. William Heinz, chairman of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, looked at data from other states already playing high school football and concluded that the sport could at least be started safely in Maine and monitored closely.

On Aug. 26, the Sports Medicine Committee voted unanimously that all sports – including soccer and football – should be played this fall. Later that day, Burnham said, the governor’s office asked the principals’ association to submit its safety protocols for review.

The next day, the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee, the final step in the association’s process, voted unanimously to give the green light to fall sports. But the relief of coaches and players was quickly tempered when it was learned the MPA’s plans would be reviewed by state agencies.

Football seemed to be the tipping point.

“They (the state) didn’t get the decision they were hoping for, so we’ll keep doing it until you get the decision you want,” said Halligan, the Falmouth coach.

Bailey was critical of the MPA plan, saying state agencies didn’t expect football to be given the go-ahead.

“We thought we were heading down a common path at one point,” Bailey said. “That committee shifted and (gave the) green light for football, which in my mind, really accelerated the conversations.”

CHANGES IN THE GUIDELINES

Yarmouth High volleyball coach Jim Senecal is resigned to the prospect that the sport won’t be played this fall. “Basically the death knell for volleyball was signed on that letter to the MPA which basically requires them to follow the DECD’s Community Sports guidelines,” he says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What has become clear is that the MPA and high school sports need to align more closely with the state’s Community Sports guidelines, which were revised on Tuesday.

Burnham was unaware that the guidelines would be revised. DHHS Commissioner Lambrew said Friday that the guidelines were undergoing an update when the MPA approached the state for guidance in August. No one informed the MPA of the upcoming update because, she said, “we didn’t want to change the goalposts for what they were doing.”

The Community Sports guidelines initially were designed for youth sports such as Little League. They were first updated on July 16 to include risk levels for each activity. State officials said the MPA did not take that into consideration when giving the go-ahead for football, which is a high-risk activity in both the state and national federation guidelines.

By having the MPA review its own guidelines, Lambrew said the state was asking it to become more consistent with state policies.

“Our goal is not whether or not to have sports but how and when, how to do it safely,” she said. “The MPA shares that goal.”

Lambrew said the Community Sports guidelines were compiled by public health officials who did a significant amount of community outreach to come up with the standards. The guidelines have expanded as the committee has gathered more data on what other states are doing in that area.

Burnham said that in the end, the MPA guidelines weren’t that far off from the Community Sports guidelines revised last week. But there are some significant differences.

Football remains a high-risk sport, but soccer has been moved from high risk to medium risk, paving the way for games to be played. Volleyball is a medium-risk sport, but under the revised guidelines games cannot be played indoors.

“Basically the death knell for volleyball was signed on that letter to the MPA which basically requires them to follow the DECD’s Community Sports guidelines,” said Yarmouth volleyball coach Jim Senecal, a member of the MPA’s Volleyball Committee.

Field hockey, cross country and golf also meet the guideline standards. The MPA has set a date for first countable games on Sept. 25.

School administrators recognize the value of athletics and other extracurriculars, but sports are a secondary concern right now. Their top priority is getting school started safely for all students and staff. The big issue is solving an overwhelming logistical puzzle of imparting education when all students in all grades must be masked and six feet apart when in school; many schools will utilize hybrid in-person and remote learning models; and schools are facing staffing shortages while having to add extra sanitizing and health screening to their daily duties.

“We definitely want to make sure we are opening schools very safely in these early beginning weeks and until we are ready with that guidance, and it’s clear and it’s consistent and it all matches I think we are going to recommend that we put (athletics) off until such time that we have crystal clear guidance for everyone,” Commissioner of Education Pender Makin said Tuesday during a Maine CDC briefing.

John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach High, said school superintendents have been overwhelmed with simply opening schools on time and safely. “I’ve got to be honest with you, we are struggling tremendously just to get our schools open, to find enough appropriate staff just to work, having to work with staff that are concerned with coming back, setting up classrooms, cafeterias, cleaning, transportation. … Superintendents have so many things on their plate that, regarding athletics, we’re taking the position that we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be the primary decision makers on this.”

Bailey, of the of the Maine School Management Association, said that plans for sports should have been included in overall plans to reopen schools.

“From the school board association’s perspective, a great deal of attention, energy and time had been spent on developing school reopening times and procedures,” Bailey said. “Unfortunately the aspect of athletics was not incorporated into some of these conversations.”

And there are those who question whether any sports should be played during the pandemic. State Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland said just that in a letter to the principals’ association.

“The push to have a fall sports schedule is well intended but we have a significant concern about outbreaks and all these other moving parts that are occurring in our state at the same time,” Brennan told the Portland Press Herald. “With universities and colleges and community colleges also opening, we now have thousands of students from other parts of the country that are returning to college. And you put that on top of schools reopening and having tens of thousands returning to K-12 education.

“The most important thing to do at this point is to determine ways to reengage with schools. That should be the top priority and sports may follow at some point.”

THE NEED FOR BETTER COMMUNICATION

Abby Allen, a senior field hockey player at Biddeford High, is frustrated by delays to the fall season. “We’re all so excited, wanting to play. But, ‘Nope you have to wait again. Nope, keep waiting.’ Just come on …” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Gerry Durgin, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators’ Association, said in hindsight all the stakeholders needed to get together sooner. Unfortunately, the virus outbreak limited face-to-face interaction, as almost all meetings have gone virtual.

“I think had we had the opportunity where all the constituents – the DOE, DHHS, the governor’s office, the MPA, superintendents, principals, and athletic administrators – could have sat at the table and worked cooperatively and collaboratively there is a chance we might not be where we are right now,” Durgin said.

SU 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington, who oversees Deer Isle-Stonington High, agrees. The high school will compete only in golf and dual cross country meets this fall, opting out of soccer.

Elkington said the letter from the state to the MPA “makes it clear to many I have spoken with that the process used was not as collaborative as it should have been. It is clear it didn’t get the feedback that was needed from DHHS, the DOE, the Maine School Boards Association and Maine Superintendents Association. If that had happened, our kids would not still be stuck in the middle.

“Communication and cooperation needs to be changed moving forward as doing things in isolation doesn’t work. By inviting the leaders of organizations early and often, together we will make sure that our kids are not stuck in the middle anymore.”

Durgin also believes athletic directors’ expertise should have been utilized more by the governmental agencies, noting his organization and its members have worked closely with the MPA.

“We’re not going to get to make the decision, but athletic directors will be the administrator of the events, the gatekeepers, who will be responsible for what happens,” Durgin said, adding that athletic directors across the state have been planning for a return to play since sports were first shut down in mid-March.

On Friday, the MPA’s Burnham said the decision should come soon on fall sports. “We continue to work toward an agreement,” he said. “I’m confident at some point next week we’ll be able to finalize some things.”

But even after the MPA sets its fall guidelines, the final decision on a school district’s participation in any fall sports will come down to a local decision, made by the superintendent and school board. Already Camden Hills and RSU 24, which includes Sumner Memorial High, have opted out of the fall season.

“This is the hard thing; there is no playbook for any of what we’re doing,” said Deveaux, the spokesperson at DOE. “Nobody wants to be in the forefront of this and then have to shut down and then have the fingers pointed. Everyone is acting out of an abundance of caution.”

And even then, the decision to play is not that simple. The Western Maine Conference, which consists of schools in southern Maine, established guidelines for what happens if a county is in the yellow zone of the DOE’s color-coded system. If a county is yellow, WMC schools can practice under MPA/state guidelines, but cannot play against other schools.

York County fell into the yellow designation on Friday.

“Honestly we knew that once we went green, we knew we were not going to be green forever and that when we went yellow, we wanted to have a plan for extracurricular activities and school-based sports,” said Old Orchard Beach athletic director Dean Plante. “We wanted to come up with plans that would be in sync with education plans.”

The drawn-out process has prompted a lot of frustration. Coaches and athletes just want to know one thing: Are we going to play?

“It’s just been kind of frustrating not having any definite answer,” said Corrin Hasty, a senior field hockey player at Marshwood. “If it’s not going to happen and we’re not going to play, it is what it is. We just want to know.”

Will Casey, a senior wide receiver for the Marshwood football team, is hoping that somehow football gets final clearance to play.

“I think I agree with them about playing it safe, but I think it’s a little overkill at this point, on and off every week,” said Casey. “Every time I ask about it (the answer) is something different.”

“It’s very frustrating because we’re all waiting,” said Abby Allen a senior field hockey player at Biddeford High. “We’re all so excited, wanting to play. But, ‘Nope you have to wait again. Nope, keep waiting.’ Just come on …”

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