Maine high school wrestlers haven’t competed since the 2020 state championships, with the 2020-21 season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Wrestling will return this winter, but all wrestlers will be required to wear a mask while competing. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Maine Principals’ Association remained consistent with its guidance for winter activities, recommending masks, vaccinations and pooled testing for all participants on Thursday.

But vaccinations will not be required for high school wrestlers, who instead will be required to wear masks in order to compete. That’s a reversal from a MPA decision earlier this month to require vaccinations for wrestlers.

Mike Burnham, the executive director of the MPA, said there were few changes from the fall in the MPA’s general recommendations for winter activities.

“We’re still following the Maine CDC guidelines,” he said.

Those guidelines, established through consultations with the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Athletic Administrators Association, the Maine Music Educators Association, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine Athletic Trainers Association, “strongly recommended” that all school staff and students that are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities be vaccinated, that all schools participate in pooled testing, and that all students and staff, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors.

Practices for most winter sports start Monday, and the regular season begins Dec. 10.

The MPA is again leaving it up to local school districts to determine what COVID-19 safety protocols will be followed. Burnham, noting that school districts across the state have different policies, said local control was important.

“When you try to mandate things like that, ultimately it becomes, ‘Do we have the authority to mandate a local policy?” he said.

Biddeford Athletic Director Dennis Walton said the MPA put out “sound recommendations,” but also wanted to “ensure flexibility among schools, districts and counties. Not everyone is on the same page.”

This will be the second winter sports season played during the coronavirus pandemic. Last winter, schools played an abbreviated, geographic-based schedule with no playoffs or championships. The MPA plans to hold tournaments in all sports this winter and, according to the guidelines, will follow Maine CDC guidelines during those events.

That means universal masking for everyone in the building during the playoffs.

“But that is still three months away,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson. “Who knows where we’ll be in three months?”

Bisson said the hope is that eventually the positive case rates will go down and athletes will not be required to wear masks while competing.

“Ultimately, a goal we want to see is kids competing as normally as possible, without masks,” he said. “But what is the metric that gets us to that point?”

Two weeks ago, the MPA was mandating that high school wrestlers, who were not able to compete at all last winter, be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to compete. After facing pushback, the MPA reconsidered and researched how states that had wrestlers wear masks while competing last winter fared.

“While not great,” the results showed it could be done, said Bisson. So the MPA is now mandating that wrestlers wear masks.

Bisson said other states built in breaks during a match to allow wrestlers to readjust their masks. “The headgear helps set (the masks) in place,” he said. “But they will move around and the kids are going to have to reset them.”

Bisson said timing was a factor in the decision to drop the vaccination requirement. Wrestlers simply did not have enough time to be vaccinated before the start of the season if they weren’t already.

“We don’t want kids to lose another year of wrestling,” he said. “And we think the safe way was to vaccinate and use pooled testing. The reality of it, at this late date, is that if you can wear a mask, you can do the activity safely.”

Bisson said a bigger issue facing wrestling is a lack of officials. There are only 18 certified wrestling officials in the state, about seven fewer than in the 2019-20 school year. “That was considered bare bones at that point,” said Bisson. “This is dire. We are struggling (with officials) in every activity, but this is the most dire.”

Dean Plante, the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Old Orchard Beach High, was not surprised that there weren’t many changes to the MPA’s guidelines.

“There was nothing new or unexpected,” he said.

Plante added that, in talks with officials at other schools, most are going to require masks being worn during competition. He said some schools have stressed that they will not play games at schools that do not require masks.

“I think schools are going to accommodate the needs of all other schools in order to get through a full season,” said Plante.

Walton added, “I think more schools than not will have (masks) on, at least at the start. I don’t know what it will look like after Jan. 1, after the holidays, but at the start they’ll be wearing masks.”

The MPA suggested that schools develop a list of guidelines, including capacity limits for fans.

Biddeford’s Walton said his gyms will be filled to only 50 percent capacity. “But that’s still a good-sized number for us,” he said, noting that the capacity standard will also be applied to Biddeford Ice Arena, where the Tigers play hockey. “I don’t see any issues.”


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