Less than a week after announcing that high school wrestlers must be fully vaccinated, the Maine Principals’ Association said Tuesday that it is reconsidering its decision in the wake of criticism from parents, coaches and athletic directors.

The principals’ association, which oversees high school sports in the state, sent a notice to schools on Thursday stating that wrestlers must be fully vaccinated. The notice came little more than two weeks before wrestling teams are scheduled to begin practices for the winter season on Nov. 22. No other high school sport in Maine has a vaccine mandate.

The mandate was made primarily because the organization’s Sports Medicine Committee felt it was unsafe to wrestle wearing masks, according to Mike Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director and its point person for wrestling. However, the MPA has not made a final determination on whether masks will be required for any winter sports. Their use would be consistent with U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendations for indoor activities, Bisson said.

On Saturday, while preparing to oversee state soccer championships at Massabesic High, Bisson said he already had begun to receive feedback on the vaccine mandate.

“I’ve heard a lot of ‘that makes sense’ – and I’ve heard from angry parents that are refusing to get their kids vaccinated,” Bisson said. “And that you’re making them make a decision about whether they’re going to wrestle or not because they’re not sure they want to get their children vaccinated.”

Maine was among the few states that did not allow wrestling in the 2020-21 school year. The principals’ association initially delayed the start of the season before deciding in late February to cancel it. At that time, the MPA was operating under the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, which considered wrestling a high-risk sport and only allowed such sports to have socially distanced practice activities. Those guidelines were retired in late May.

On Tuesday, the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee met once again to reconsider the mandate. At this point, no decision has been made on whether to require wrestlers to be vaccinated.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Bisson said, adding that meetings with the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee – the organization’s decision-making group – and the regional presidents of the Maine School Superintendents Association will be held in the next few days.

Coaches and athletic directors fear that requiring vaccines would cause many wrestlers to opt out of a grueling sport that saw a 29 percent decline in participation over the 10 years from 2009-10 to 2018-19.

“If they stick with (vaccines), obviously we’ll lose some athletes,” said Kevin Gray, the wrestling coach at 2019 Class A champion Noble High. “Losing a year last year and if we have a non-normal year, which is what it’s looking like, you will see schools lose numbers.”

Longtime Gardiner wrestling coach Matt Hanley agreed that a vaccine mandate would impact his program. “I know of a few kids in my program who would have opted out,” he said. “If the MPA does change its mind, it will have a big impact on wrestling.”

Some athletic officials are frustrated that a decision is taking so long with the season soon to begin.

“Why do it at the 11th hour as per usual with the MPA?” Gray asked. “With everything they dealt with it’s the 11th hour and they don’t seem to take into account what the rest of the country is doing. Why are we not looking at what the other New England states are doing or even discussing with them?”

Marshwood athletic director Rich Buzzell said that 12 students have signed up to wrestle at Marshwood this season. Of those, five are fully vaccinated and one is partially vaccinated.

“Right now, if my six decide to get vaccinated, to get fully vaccinated, it will take six weeks,” Buzzell said. “Even if they go get a shot today, their first eligible meet that we have would be Dec. 22. So they’re basically losing three countable dates (on the schedule) plus the exhibition.

“The notification (from the MPA) definitely should have happened sooner.”

Many states that had wrestling last season required masks, including Massachusetts, which ended up wrestling outdoors in the spring, and New Hampshire. This year Massachusetts will continue to se face masks. New Hampshire will not.

According to an informal survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in September, two of the 35 responding states indicated they would require masks for wrestlers.

When it comes to vaccinations, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are “the two state associations that we currently know of mandating vaccinations for all student-athletes,” said Cody Porter, the NFHS manager of media relations. No state has made a wrestling-only vaccine mandate nor has any canceled its 2021-22 wrestling season, Porter said.

Maine’s Department of Education has not required vaccinations for any segment of the K-12 population, including staff and teachers. But there is national precedent, mostly in large school systems, for requiring vaccination to participate in high school sports. New York City requires it for “high-risk ” sports. Baltimore will require vaccines for all winter sports. Los Angeles and Fairfax County, a 190,000-student district in Virginia, require vaccinations across all sports.

Gray said it is not fair to single out wrestlers as the only group in the entire educational system that must be vaccinated.

“I don’t think they would have done this to basketball two weeks before the preseason, to say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to totally transform how your team will look or could look,'” Gray said.

Other high school winter sports teams that use college facilities are facing similar vaccination issues because the colleges are requiring vaccinations or, in some cases negative COVID-19 tests, to be on campus. But that is because of the college’s rules, not because of a public school system mandate.

And there is wiggle room for those athletes, said Tim Spear, Gorham High’s athletic director and a member of the MPA Sports Medicine Committee.

For instance, Gorham’s ice hockey and indoor track teams use the University of Southern Maine facilities. Spear said that if a student chooses to not be vaccinated, they can still use the USM facilities if they are either part of pooled testing at a school, or by providing weekly proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Spear said it was not the Sports Medicine Committee’s intent to “segregate or separate” the wrestling community.

“We all want to have wrestling. We want them to have this opportunity,” Spear said, adding that a real concern is that another lost season would result in elite wrestlers finding other avenues, like out-of-state clubs, to wrestle “and the sport of high school wrestling might be lost.”

Spear said much of Tuesday’s Sports Medicine Committee meeting involved discussing whether wearing a mask while wrestling is a significant enough safety concern that it requires a vaccine mandate.

“Is that what we really want? To mandate for those folks not willing to be vaccinated? The last thing we want is to lose student-athletes,” Spear said.

Athletic directors Dennis Walton, of Biddeford High, and Lance Johnson, of Portland High, said  the decision ultimately may come down to local control, as it has for much of the pandemic.

“We learned a long time ago during the pandemic that when (a decision) comes out, we have to wait for the final decision,” Walton said. “I know the superintendents are still meeting so now we wait on them.”

“It all comes down to local control,” Johnson said. “I do think that the superintendents in Cumberland and York counties, and throughout the state, want to work together so that there is some consistency in what we do.”

Press Herald Staff Writer Mike Lowe and Central Maine Newspapers Staff Writer Bill Stewart contributed to this report.


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