University of Maine football players gather during a practice last summer in Orono. The fall sports season is still a possibility at the seven universities in the UMaine System after officials announced that students will return to campuses. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

This week’s announcement that students in the University of Maine System will return to campus in the fall is encouraging news for athletic directors at the seven universities.

It means that the fall sports season is still in play. For now, anyway. College sports have been shut down across the country since mid-March in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“At this point we are going forward with (fall sports),” said Al Bean, the athletic director at the University of Southern Maine. “We still have some questions to answer but our plan is to move forward at this time.”

UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said Thursday that officials in Orono are “hopeful” of starting the fall seasons on time, but are certainly developing “contingency plans in the event that our seasons are shortened, delayed or interrupted.

“If you examine national trends,” she continued, “we have to recognize the possibility we may not have a traditional season. If we do not think we can provide the level of experience our students have come to expect from the University of Maine or if we believe the requirements of intercollegiate sports could create health risks in the campus community, we would look to delay participation until we had the necessary level of certainty to continue.”

At least eight colleges, including Bowdoin College in Brunswick, have canceled the fall sports season. So far, three schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, of which Bates and Colby are members along with Bowdoin, have canceled the fall season. Some conferences are considering playing league-only schedules.

“As we all know, (the pandemic) can take a lot of turns,” said Bean. “It’s not exactly predictable. We’re keeping our options open right now. The issues are still big issues: testing, tracing and the quarantine issue.”

Bean said athletic directors in the UMaine System will meet soon to discuss the issues.

“The big questions are still there,” he said. “What happens if there’s an outbreak? What happens if you’re on the road, or even at home, and someone exhibits symptoms? How do you handle that? It’s complex.”

Julie Davis, the athletic director at UMaine-Farmington, said her school hopes to have “more details by the end of next week.”

But knowing that students will be back on campus in the fall is important as the schools navigate unprecedented times in college sports. According to the University of Maine System plan, on-campus classes will begin on Aug. 31. In-person instruction will end and residence halls close by Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. The final two weeks of the semester and final exams will be held remotely to limit travel-related spread of infection.

“We continue to have constant communication with our conference colleagues as we craft solutions for safe opportunities for our students to compete,” said Ken Ralph, the athletic director at the University of Maine. “Having clarity on our campus plans will help guide our portion of those discussions.”

So will having a testing protocol. The University of Maine system has partnered with The Jackson Laboratory and ConvenientMD to provide COVID-19 testing at its campuses this fall. Bean considered this a vital step as well and is waiting to hear what the testing protocols will look like.

“We have to make sure we pay attention to health and safety and mitigate the risks to the best of our ability,” he said. “We want to keep everyone safe. If we can do this, great.”

That’s the goal for every school, said Farmington’s Davis.

“This is our reality, for now,” she said. “Holistic health and safety for all of our constituents is at the forefront.”


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