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Pushed back one week

Start of high school fall sports season delayed to Sept. 14

Safety guidelines to be reviewed after joint statement from MPA, MSBA, MSSA, Mills' Administration
By Staff | Sep 02, 2020

Augusta — Student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors and fans of high school sports have waited with baited breath — and incredible anticipation — for word on whether a fall season in Maine will happen.

Now, those anxious and concerned parties are forced to wait a bit longer.

In a joint statement released on Wednesday, Sept. 2, the Maine Principals’ Association, Maine School Boards Association, Maine School Superintendents Association and Mills' Administration announced plans to delay the scheduled start of the fall sports season by one week.

Thus, the start of the season, for most sports, will begin on Monday, Sept. 14. Practices were to begin on Tuesday,. Sept. 8, but that has been changed.

The start of the high school fall sports season has been delayed and modified multiple times due to COVID-19. Initially, the start of the spring sports season was delayed a month before the season was eventually canceled.

High school fall sports in Maine consists of football, soccer, field hockey, golf, cross country and volleyball.

“In the coming days, 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," said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham. "We are grateful to the departments for their response to our request for feedback and look forward to working with them so that students may be able to play sports as quickly and as safely as possible.”

“I am a firm believer in the value of school sports which support the physical, social, and mental health of young people,” said Gov. Janet Mills. “I want to see fall sports come back this year in a way that protects the health of students on the field, in the locker room and in the classroom, while safeguarding members of the larger community. I am asking my commissioners to work as a team with the MPA, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association to address concerns about the guidance as quickly as possible 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.”

The MPA had announced on Thursday, Aug. 27 that the organization's interscholastic management committee accepted the motion presented by the sports medicine committee one day prior to allow fall high school sports to move forward in the coming weeks amid safety concerns due to the pandemic, which in turn, sent the motion back to several high-ranking state agencies for review.

In response to the MPA's request for a review of its guidance for school sports, Lambrew and Makin sent a letter to the MPA that listed their agencies areas of concern and possible solutions to safety issues.

That information, in a form of a letter and links to additional guidelines, was passed along to the MPA on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Now, the ball has been put back in the MPA's court — so to speak — to fine-tune their recommendations and put them in compliance with the state's specifications to allow the high school sports season to take place.

“We appreciate the Maine Principals’ Association’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of Maine’s student athletes as well as their fellow students, school staff, and families – a commitment we share,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin. “We recognize the sense of urgency but believe this additional time will allow schools to focus on the challenges of resuming classes and result in guidance that allows school sports consistent with the State’s public health measures and that safeguards the health and safety of all Maine students. We will work closely with MPA, the Maine School Boards Association, and the Maine School Superintendents Association on a path forward.”

“Maine School Boards Association and Superintendents Association have a history of working closely with our partners at the MPA and the state to serve the best interests of Maine students and schools,” said Steve Bailey and Eileen King, executive directors of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association, respectively. “We are pleased there will be additional time to allow for a safe startup of schools as in-person classes resume and to align MPA guidance with the state’s health and safety protocols. We fully appreciate the importance of athletic programs and other co-curricular and extracurricular activities in whole-child development, and believe, as do our partners, that the health and safety of students, staff, and communities are of the utmost importance during this pandemic.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, Kelli A. Deveaux, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, released a letter from Lambrew and Makin that was sent to the MPA dealing with how to safely navigate school sports this fall amid COVID-19.

Click on link below to read the letter sent to the MPA.

Click to read the updated — as of Sept. 1 — state community sports guidelines.

Included in the letter were clarifications and considerations as well as links to earlier correspondence from the Maine School Boards Association’s Board of Directors and the Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Committee that raise health and safety concerns about fall school sports, Deveaux wrote.

In the letter sent to the MPA on Tuesday, the state agencies recommend tweaks to the guidelines approved by the MPA and also asked the organization that governs member school varsity sports to push back the start of the fall season to give additional time to review sports safety protocols.

At least three Maine high schools, including Camden Hills in Rockport, Deer Isle-Stonington High School and Sumner Memorial High School of East Sullivan, have opted not to participate in interscholastic athletic competition with other schools this fall.

Previously, the official start of the Maine fall high school sports season had been pushed back from Monday, Aug. 17 to Tuesday, Sept. 8, with the first non-football countable event that involves different schools to be no earlier than Friday, Sept. 18.

However, at this point, it appears the MPA and state agencies have to come to an agreement on final operating guidelines before fall sports can begin or even get off the ground.

The MPA canceled spring sports after the pandemic began in March and all pertinent organizations have been working to find a consistently safe and practical way to hold the fall athletic season.

The letter to Burnham, executive director, and the interscholastic division of the MPA, said the state agencies were asked to review the MPA's “Return to Competition for Competitive Athletics and Activities in Maine."

"The purpose of this letter is to describe areas where MPA Guidance does not comport with underlying public health policy related to COVID-19 and to highlight recommendations from other guidance documents that we urge the MPA to adopt," the letter states.

The letter goes on to state: "We want to acknowledge the challenging impact that public health safety during the coronavirus pandemic has had on school sports. We understand that being active in sports has both physical and mental health benefits for youth and the opportunity to re-engage in sports can boost the overall well-being of young people during times that have been particularly stressful and, in many cases, isolating. It is important to note that the state’s guidance related to physical activity does not indicate that sports must be canceled outright; rather, it has offered safe ways for participation. If the schools had the resources like professional and some collegiate sports leagues to conduct frequent team testing and house teams separately to protect other students, school staff, and their families, it might be possible to return to interscholastic competition safely. Without that, such a return poses a risk of spreading COVID-19 across the state, within schools, and to vulnerable people within communities."

The letter states is "would be most appropriate" for the MPA to consider the "Community Sports" checklist developed department of education for a different context.

The letter reminded the MPA the country remains under a federally-declared public health emergency and Maine remains under s state of civil emergency.

As it pertains to sports, the letter stated: "Our review found that several elements in the MPA Guidance do not comport with the State of Maine rules. The MPA Guidance states that spectators at events should be three to six feet apart. However, fewer than six feet spacing is prohibited for spectators in the guidance for Community Sports, Performing Arts Venues, Movie Theaters, and related guidance. For instance, the Movie Theater guidance specifies that, “In seated venues, limit seating to allow for at least six feet of physical distance between non-household members.” Similar guidance applies to related planned spaces off the field or court. Additionally, the outdoor gathering limit remains at 100 while the indoor limit is 50 people, including participants, officials, and spectators, and is lower if six-foot distancing cannot be maintained between individuals and groups like families. High traffic areas including entrances, exits and restrooms should be managed per standard guidelines."

Additionally, the letter states the MPA face-covering guidance "is largely, but not fully consistent with state guidance. According to Executive Order 49 FY 19/20, 'individuals must wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain.' Beyond exceptions for young children and certain people with medical conditions, face coverings are not required during vigorous activity. However, at all other times including during low to moderate intensity exercises, in bench areas, during coaching strategy sessions, and other circumstances where physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain, sports participants must wear a face covering — along with coaches, officials, and others involved in school sports."

The letter goes on to state: "The MPA Guidance is designed specifically for sports in schools. However, it does not explicitly reference either the Maine Department of Education requirements and recommendations for schools or school district plans for reopening. The Department of Education in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services issued basic requirements for schools and recommendations for implementation six weeks ago. School administrative units, faculty, parents, students, and other stakeholders have developed district-related plans for the fall based on these requirements. We view these plans as the rules for what takes place in public schools — in the classroom or in gyms, fields, buses, and other school property. The MPA Guidance is silent on the interaction with schools’ plans, despite these activities occurring on school grounds, using school services, and supervised by school staff."

The letter also states that the MPA guidelines do not include "modifications to the types of play for sports based on risk. Under the MPA Guidance, student-athletes in even the highest risk sports can compete as they did pre-COVID, including within-team competition, between local teams, between teams statewide regardless of the color classification of counties in the School Health Advisory System, and between teams from out of state including states that are not exempt from Maine’s requirement for quarantine or testing. The Community Sports Guidance document does not permit competitions outside of scrimmages within the team for high-risk sports. The combination of travel and close contact in certain sports increases the risk of accelerating coronavirus spread. This is why colleges and universities in New England have largely cancelled intercollegiate athletic competition this fall.

The letter adds, "Our public health experts do not recommend adopting the MPA Guidance given the differences previously described. As such, they updated the Community Sports Guidance effective Sept. 1, 2020. For reference, the updates include (1) clarification on appropriate use of face coverings in sports; (2) additional reclassification of the risk of sports; (3) clarification on levels of play and what local competition means; and (4) new guidance on road races. It also clarifies that when interstate travel restarts, teams follow the state’s travel policy."

Finally, the letter urges the MPA delay the "start date for fall sports as many other interscholastic sports bodies in other states have done to allow for sufficient time to resolve the concerns expressed in this letter and to allow for appropriate time for implementation. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing schools the opportunity to get their academic programs underway, which many school administrators, teachers and communities will likely appreciate."

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

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Carol W Bachofner | Sep 02, 2020 09:32

Football is a contact sport. If we allow that, why are we not opening all high schools without COVID restrictions? Seems antithetical to think we can restrict contact, require masks, etc while in classes and then go for full contact on the field and in the locker rooms. Sure, kids WANT to play football (and other sports) but isn't protection of others along with the athletes our first concern? When my kids were still in school THEY and their "wants" did not dictate what was done for them. I, as parent, made the decisions based upon their health and safety. I'm sure our current cadre of parents would do the same. Being ALIVE and not risking the lives of others does seem a bit more important than sports at this point. Just MHO.

 



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