There isn’t a firm plan for exactly when games will resume, but Maine high school coaches and administrators now have a framework of what will be needed for sports to resume, from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The National Federation of State High School Associations has released a set of guidelines for the reopening of sports that have been shut down nationwide since early March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidelines, put together by the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and released Tuesday to all state associations, come in three phases and address issues such as social distancing, wearing masks, when certain activities could be allowed and who can attend competitions. The NFHS also categorized sports according to potential infection risk, from Higher Risk (such as football, wrestling, boys’ lacrosse and competitive cheering) to Moderate Risk to Lower Risk.

The guidelines, welcomed by Maine high school officials, will provide the Maine Principals’ Association with some direction in its effort to reopen Maine high school sports.

“It’s another tool that we have that will help us as we determine when we can come back,” said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham. “As we’ve said before, things are changing. I think that they are very helpful and certainly gave us talking points as we look at developing something in our state.”

And that’s all high school officials throughout the state are looking for – some guidance leading through the summer into the fall.

“There are still a lot of moving parts and questions about how to reopen high school sports,” said Tony Giordano, the athletic trainer at Thornton Academy in Saco. “But I see this as a step in the right direction. We’ve got something written down.”

“I think we’ve all been anxious about what we can do,” said Kevin Cooper, the football coach at Bonny Eagle High in Standish. “We’re worried about the status of sports coming up in the fall. And the best thing I take from this is that they’ve given us some guidelines, things we can follow … Anything that we can get gives us hope.”

The MPA had already released some guidelines for summer play. Beginning June 14, coaches will be allowed virtual contact with their athletes to provide nonsport specific workouts. Then, starting July 6, in-person instruction with team members could hopefully begin.

Dan O’Connell, the athletic director and football coach at John Bapst Memorial High in Bangor, is the national coaches’ association liaison to the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and said state associations were seeking guidance from the national federation.

“We’ve given these people something to start with so that they can all feel like, ‘I have a path.'” said O’Connell, who is also on the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee. “I’m not sure the path back to the new normal, whatever that may be, was there before the guidelines. And I don’t think they solve every issue. But it gets us back on that path in some unified manner.”

The guidelines do not have a specific timeline but instead offer a blueprint to follow. Bruce Howard, the NFHS director of publications and communications, said that was done for a reason. “The phases have no dates because, when those various stages are going to happen, and when the next one begins, is going to be certainly different from one state to another,” he said.

Each phase includes a screening plan (including temperature checks and questionnaires) before workouts, a limitation on the size of the workout group (increasing in each phase), a facilities cleaning plan, and a list of activities and equipment that can be used and when certain activities can begin.

For example: Phase 1 consists entirely of individual workouts; Phase 2 allows practices and competitions for Lower Risk sports (individual running and throwing events in track, individual swimming events, golf, Alpine skiing, sideline cheering and cross country running – with staggered starts), as well as modified practices for Moderate Risk sports (basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump, girls’ lacrosse, 7-on-7 summer football); Phase 3 includes resumption of practices and competitions for Moderate Risk sports, as well as modified practices for High Risk sports.

Maine’s football coaches were quick to note that nowhere in the guidelines did it list a start of practices and games for their sport, and spent much of Wednesday emailing and texting each other. “It’s definitely a concern,” said Sanford’s Mike Fallon. “You get to Phase 3 and you’re waiting for the next phase. It just remains unanswered, as do a lot of questions in life, generally, right now.”

John Ryan, the certified athletic trainer at South Portland High, said he believes cross country and golf would be the “two easiest” sports “to get up and going.” Golf is already being played throughout the state with social distancing and safety protocols. But Ryan cautioned that there will be significant difficulties in resuming high school sports. First, schools will have to be open for classroom instruction.

“Obviously if the schools aren’t open, then athletics isn’t going to happen,” said Ryan, who is also president of the Maine Athletic Trainers’ Association.

Jorma Kurry, a longtime cross country coach at Falmouth High, said even his sport will have difficulties. He noted runners can’t run closely behind another runner because the spray of respiratory droplets. Running side-by-side on the roads is a hazard because of cars.

“And obviously we can’t have a mass start of 100 or more kids like we normally do,” Kurry said.

And then there are the masks. The guidelines suggest “state, local or school district guidelines for cloth face coverings should be strictly followed” and that any student “who prefers to wear a cloth face covering during a contest should be allowed to do so.” It also suggests coaches and officials be allowed to wear face coverings.

As the coach of Waynflete School’s reigning two-time Class C boys’ soccer team, Brandon Salway said players could adjust to wearing face masks, just as they have to using mouth guards.

“I just know kids are going to be so eager to get going and see friends and to be active, and to be active together,” Salway said, adding later, “They need that social interaction. We all do. It’s just vital to your overall health and well-being.”

Leavitt football coach Mike Hathaway said many football players wear facemasks when the weather gets cold anyway, so it shouldn’t be an issue, a sentiment echoed by Bonny Eagle’s Cooper. “We will adapt. We will do anything we need to, to ensure a season in the fall,” said Cooper.

Athletic trainers Giordano and Ryan noted there are many issues to consider yet: Will each school be required to purchase thermometers? What about hand sanitizer? Will fans be allowed? How do you regulate social distancing? Who’s going to clean the facilities and equipment? Who’s going to pay for it all?

Ryan said it is imperative to make some activities available to the school-age population.

“The biggest thing for all of us really is just finding a way to get the kids back, engaged, because the mental health issue is going to wind up being huge if we go into the school year with no athletics,” Ryan said. “For a lot of those kids, athletics and the other co-curriculars like the school play and band, that’s what gets them to school every day. If you take away those outlets, then a lot of times not much good comes of it.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

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