State officials have given the go-ahead for high schools to hold individual skills workouts starting next week, but have delayed the start of team practices and intrasquad scrimmages for moderate and high-risk sports until January.

Given the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the state, officials at the Maine Principals’ Association were pleased that state officials agreed to allow for individual skills workouts. Friday’s announcement came in the form of a joint statement Friday afternoon from the MPA, the Mills administration and other state agencies.

“I think that the work that the schools have done to follow the guidelines and to make this a safe return (to competition) allows us to move forward with skills and drills,” said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham.

Individual skills and drills can begin Monday, with the start of team practices for moderate or high-risk sports pushed back three weeks, from Dec. 14 to Jan. 4. According to a press release, the decision “allows skill-building drills or conditioning to begin as scheduled … with face coverings, physical distancing, no close contact, and in limited numbers when possible.”

The decision, arrived at through discussions with the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and state offices, allayed fears by many within the high school sports community that the entire winter season would be pushed into January, given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 290 new cases, coming off a record 346 on Thursday. The number of daily cases has surpassed 200 in 15 of the last 30 days.

“This sounds like a reasonable plan,” said Andrew Dolloff, the Yarmouth superintendent of schools. “The numbers statewide continue to indicate growing transmission of the disease, but schools are doing a great job of following protocols, so a balanced approach makes sense. We simply need to continue moving forward with caution until we can be assured things are safe for everyone.”

The state’s Community Sports Guidelines were updated Friday to reflect the change in dates for practices. For now, Jan. 11 remains the earliest games could start, according to the guidelines, though that may change given the new practice start date.

Basketball, hockey, competitive cheering, team swimming, and running events where physical distance cannot be maintained are labeled as moderate-risk sports in the guidelines. Wrestling is a high-risk sport. Skiing, and individual throwing and jumping events in track and field, are labeled as low risk.

Not all schools can begin skills and drills on Monday. Schools located in the four counties – Androscoggin, Oxford, Somerset and York – that received a yellow designation from the Maine Department of Education on Friday are not allowed to participate in any interscholastic activities. Coaches can communicate virtually with their athletes in those counties.

The Maine DOE’s color-coded system assesses the risk of COVID-19 spread throughout a community. Schools that are located in yellow counties “must suspend competitions and group practices,” according to the MPA’s Return to Competition guidelines. The color-coded list will be updated next Friday, according to the Maine DOE.

High schools in yellow-designated counties – among them Lewiston, Edward Little, Oak Hill, Oxford Hills, Mountain Valley, Fryeburg Academy, Carrabec, Skowhegan, Lawrence, Valley, Thornton Academy, Marshwood, Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford, Massabesic and Kennebunk – must wait for any in-person sessions, however. Those in York County are accustomed to the delay.

York County schools were unable to participate in the first five weeks of the delayed fall sports season after the county received a yellow designation. It turned green on Oct. 16, allowing the schools to have a four-week fall season.

“I’ve had people ask me if those four weeks were worth it,” said Biddeford Athletic Director Dennis Walton. “It was very worth it. You could see the kids shine when they were with their friends on the fields.”

Kennebunk Athletic Director Joe Schwartzman said his school had developed a plan for every contingency, based on their lessons from the fall. “I mean, we’re ready,” he said. “We have a yellow and a green plan for all our coaches. They’ve been working on those for a couple of weeks, so that they’ll be ready to start communicating with the kids on Monday, keep them engaged … We’re in good shape.”

Some schools had already decided to delay practices. At Marshwood High, the Hawks were not planning to begin any workouts until Dec. 14. Sanford High planned to have two or three days of meetings with students to make sure they understand all the new COVID-19 safety protocols before beginning any drills.

“The other thing about winter that makes things a little more hopeful is that the winter season is a long season,” Walton said. “So even if we start after the (Christmas) holidays, we could have eight, nine solid weeks of available season. We could get pushed back a month and still have plenty of time to have a meaningful season.”

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