It appears, at this point, high school winter athletics in Maine will be played, in some form or fashion, within a specific step-by-step schedule, which, ultimately, will lead to interscholastic competition among teams from the same geographic area, as was the case with fall sports.

The keys to the latest winter sports update are: Safety precautions for indoor athletics will be developed and maintained, there will be mandatory use of face coverings and spectators will not be allowed for inside competition.

There will be a handful of levels to start winter sports, from skills and drills sessions to practices and scrimmages in December to interscholastic competition that can start on Monday, Jan. 11.

Of course, when the safety criteria and protocols for each winter sport are determined, as they did in the fall, individual school districts will determine if they will participate in interscholastic play, even if the Maine Principals' Association moves forward with sanctioned play.

The MPA, Maine School Superintendents Association, Maine School Boards Association and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills issued the following information and statements on Friday, Nov. 6 after reaching agreement on a schedule for winter school sports.

That schedule, according to the released information, "supports students, their families and school communities in planning for the season while guidance for safe winter sports play during the pandemic is finalized."

The information from those organization stated the MPA continues to update its "School Sports Guidance: Return to Competition for Competitive Athletics and Activities in Maine” for winter sports and will issue requirements applicable to particular sports in the coming weeks.

The guidance will include the requirement that participants in school sports wear face coverings during practices and competition, which is in line with the governor's new executive order. This requirement takes effect on Friday, Nov. 6 for the remaining fall school sports season.

The "COVID-19 Prevention Checklist for Community Sports" has been updated to reflect the same schedule, recommendations, and requirements. It, too, is effective on Friday, Nov. 6.

As with fall sports, specific winter sports will be categorized as low, medium or high risk and assigned corresponding levels of play. The six levels of play are assigned based on the activity level’s own risk (ranging from skill building to competition), protocols to allow activity to happen safely, and circumstances with COVID-19 in Maine.

“We are pleased to have worked collaboratively with the various stakeholders to provide an opportunity for winter activities to take place in Maine,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA. “We understand the importance that these activities are to the health and well-being of our students, their families, and their communities. The alignment with the 'Community Sport Guidelines' gives all groups a chance to work together to provide programs that are meaningful for the young people in our state. These guidelines will also allow for the sport of volleyball to have an indoor season at some point this winter/spring."

The winter sports start dates for the first few levels are:

• Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 — Level 1: Skills and drills sessions at home, alone or with household members.

• Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 — Level 2-3: Practices and competitions (e.g. intrasquad scrimmages) within teams.

• Monday, Jan. 11, 2021 — Level 4: Competition among teams from the same geographic area.

The released information states the start dates of Dec. 7 and Jan. 11 allow for time to pass after holidays when people may be traveling or at gatherings that increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Start dates for Levels 5 and 6 of competition will be determined in January.

The Jan. 11 start date for Level 4 competition also will be reviewed in early January based on the status of the public health situation at that time.

The winter sports schedule is similar to that adopted by Vermont and New Hampshire.

“We are grateful to the MPA, the Maine School Superintendents Association, and the Maine School Boards Association for their continued collaboration,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Education Commissioner Pender Makin. “This schedule allows students, their families and school communities to plan for a winter sports season that prioritizes the health and safety of Maine students, school staff, and communities.”

“The MSBA Board of Directors supports the plan,” said MSBA Executive Director Steven Bailey. “We understand how important sports are not just to the players but to the school community. Face coverings are the new normal and the best strategy for allowing sports to continue and for keeping schools open, along with allowing no spectators within competitions. While disappointing to both fans and players, it is critical to the success of schools remaining the place where spread does not happen. We need for schools to remain the safe place so that we are able to remain in 'yellow,' heading to 'green.' ”

“The MSSA executive committee supports the recommendations for moving forward with the winter sports schedule and appreciates the safety precautions of mandatory use of face coverings and that no spectators will be allowed for inside competition,” said Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association. “We also thank the MPA for their strong language mandating the suspension of sports if a county is defined as 'yellow.' ”

Midcoast athletic directors said it was difficult, in a sense, to understand all that this means because, one, they had just begun to absorb what the MPA and state agencies have done to this point, and, two, no one knows what each sports safety protocols or participation criteria will look like.

However, as one AD pointed out, the schools and general public must stay vigilant in their fights to keep the virus as subdued as possible.

"The main hurdle will be keeping the pandemic under control so that Waldo and surrounding counties remain designated 'green' by the department of education," said Belfast Area High School athletic director Matt Battani. "As Waldo returned to a 'green' designation [Nov. 6] (after two weeks in 'yellow'), I am optimistic that we will be able to offer winter sports along state guidelines. As long as Waldo is in 'green,' our plan is to offer everything allowable by the state."

Camden Hills Regional High School and Medomak Valley High School athletic directors Jeff Hart and Matt Lash said they continue to digest the latest information and it is difficult to fully comment until the individual winter sports safety and participation criteria is developed.

"Once we have those, the administrative team here will meet and see how those guidelines fit into our daily school plan and decide what we think the best thing to do is for our school and community," Hart said.

Courier Publications' sports staff can be reached by email at sports@villagesoup.com or by phone at 594-4401.