Runners compete during the 2019 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference cross country championships at Cony High School in Augusta. The decision to play high school sports this fall is likely to be decided at the local level, based on guidance from the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Principals’ Association. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

When the Maine Principals’ Association announced Tuesday it would delay the start of fall practices until after Labor Day, many saw it as a hopeful sign that high school sports can resume during the coronavirus pandemic.

But in the days since, educators across the state have raised concerns about whether the fall season – at least one that includes all of the traditional sports playing for state championships – is feasible. Some even wonder if their own schools will be able to compete in interscholastic sports.

Optimism tends to decline as you travel from north to south in the state, mirroring the counties that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 cases in Maine.

Much depends on where each county falls within the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded guidelines, which will indicate the viability of returning to the classroom based on virus infection data. The first of these color-coded guidelines is expected on Friday, to be updated every two weeks.

“Certainly in terms of our academic return, they’re going to drive our decision-making,” said Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff. “That will have a major role in our decisions around athletics, too.”

Schools that fall into the red, or high-risk, counties, where in-class learning cannot be held, likely will be unable to provide interscholastic opportunities. Those that fall into the yellow category, with an elevated risk of COVID-19 infection, will likely use a hybrid learning system and may be able to offer some interscholastic opportunities. Schools in the green counties can resume in-class learning and can likely offer all interscholastic activities.

“We’re hoping a lot (of the counties) are going to be green,” said Bill Heinz, chair of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee. “We’re going to make it as safe as we can. We want to get kids back playing sports. But we have to keep them safe. We can’t take a risk.”

Even if the MPA allows sports this fall, school officials said the ultimate determination will be made locally – and that some school districts might make different decisions than their neighbors. Many are considering offering intramural sports if interscholastic sports are untenable.

“There are just way too many variables,” said Heinz. “It could be there are no playoffs, no championships, just teams getting together to play games who would never play against each other. Class A vs. Class B, just because they’re close and they can.”

Molly Bishop, the athletic director at Oceanside High in Rockland, said what one school district does will certainly influence another, much like what happens when a snowstorm hits during the winter: one school postpones its games and then others quickly follow.

“When the first domino falls, how long before others fall?” Bishop said. “Superintendents are certainly understanding we need to get (athletics) back, but which is more important – getting back on the football field, or getting them back in the classroom?”

The specter of a possible COVID-19 outbreak looms over everything and makes it difficult to envision a full fall season.

“My opinion is that, without ability to test people every day or every other day, it is a risky proposition to allow sports that have close proximity to occur at this time of the year,” said John Suttie, the superintendent of RSU 23 and principal at Old Orchard Beach High. “My hope is that we have all sports. That would be perfect.”

Maranacook girls’ soccer players celebrate a Class C South quarterfinal victory in 2019. Maranacook Athletic Director Brant Remington says he is 90 percent optimistic that the school will play sports this fall. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

OPTIMISM FOR THE FALL

There are those who think they can have all sports in the fall. They are in counties now that have few cases of COVID-19 and figure to be among the green-colored counties when the Maine DOE releases its first set of color codes.

“We are planning on a fall athletic season,” said Gardiner Athletic Director Nate Stubbert. “We are following the MPA guidelines, and it also looks right now that we are going to be a green county (Kennebec), so we are planning on playing. Looking at the MPA announcement, they never said we can’t play football, so we are planning on playing everything.”

Stubbert notes that Maine, with its low virus transmission rate, is in much better shape than many other states that have also delayed the start of their fall seasons. He added that Gardiner has a COVID-19 athletic committee that is working on implementing safety measures to be put in place for sports.

Athletic directors at Erskine Academy and Maranacook were also optimistic about offering a full slate of fall sports, even if Kennebec County gets a yellow designation.

Maranacook Athletic Director Brant Remington said the MPA’s decision to delay the sports season made him more optimistic that a season can be held. “I’d put my optimism probably over 90 percent,” he said. “This last announcement from the MPA probably raised it from about 75 to over 90 percent positive. You can tell that there’s an importance for it, that they’re not just saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to bother, because we don’t know where everybody’s going to be.'”

Remington said he’s planning on offering all sports, but that if football or any other sport is called off for the fall, Maranacook would field the rest of its teams.

Erskine, which does not have a football team, is planning on offering a full slate of varsity sports.

“We would probably offer all the fall sports,” said Athletic Director Chuck Karter. “Soccer and field hockey are a little higher risk than cross country and golf, but we’d offer them. I’m thinking we’re in an all or nothing situation at Erskine.”

At Presque Isle in Aroostook County, Athletic Director Mark White said the school plans to open to students as scheduled and offer boys’ and girls’ soccer, cross country and golf. “We’re just waiting to get (MPA) guidelines so we can get going,” White said.

Brewer Athletic Director Dave Utterback said his school is in a good place right now. Brewer is now in Phase 2 of the MPA Summer Conditioning program. Students arrive at and leave the field through defined entry and exit points, and they are masked from the car to the field and through the health screening process. One benefit, Utterback said, is that athletes get used to the procedures and coaches are trained on how to screen the students. “We’ve got at least 20 percent of our students aware of what’s going to be occurring once they return to school,” he said.

But Utterback said the return to sports is likely going to be a local issue, decided by each school district, based on the cases within a town/zip code.

“Take Penobscot (County),” said Utterback. “Bangor has had over 50 cases and Brewer has had seven. That’s just right across the river.”

And, he added, “If all of Androscoggin (County) is yellow, Lisbon is probably in a lot different situation than Lewiston.”

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Harvard Global Health Institute’s color-coded map is based on per-capita positive COVID-19 test results over the past seven days for each county in the United States. Associated Press

GLIMPSE OF ONE COLOR-CODED MAP

While school await the release of Maine DOE’s color-coded system, Harvard University updates one regularly for every county in the United States through its Global Health Institute. It uses a red-orange-yellow-green system, with risk levels based on the number of new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

Most counties in Maine on the Harvard map are green. Cumberland and York counties have been yellow throughout July.

But it is difficult it is to predict what color a county might be when school opens. Consider recent changes on the Harvard map: Aroostook County, a green county for weeks, suddenly turned yellow on July 21 with an additional four cases (going from 0.9 cases per 100,000 people to 1.5). Androscoggin County, another green county, turned yellow after July 22 with the addition of two cases (0.9 to 1.1 per 100,000). Penobscot County, meanwhile, went from green to yellow to green over three days ending Friday.

Meanwhile, schools are looking for guidance from the MPA, which in turn looks to the Maine DOE for its lead.

The two organizations have been meeting two or three times a week since March, according to Maine DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux. “The coordinated efforts of these organizations have been critical in aligning our guidance and decision making to ensure the health and safety of our staff and students, including the unenviable task that the MPA and their committees face regarding high school athletics,” she said.

MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said everything his organization does is based on recommendations from the Maine DOE. Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller said that’s the way it should be.

“We are education-based athletics and you’ve got to remember the first word,” he said. “I think we got to take care of education before we take care of sports, or we are not following our own mantra.

Fuller and others said there is much to be considered before high school sports can begin. Schools have to establish guidelines for screening, for sanitizing, for game personnel and for travel, among other things. Then there’s mandates on wearing masks (the state is requiring them for high school students and teachers in classrooms) and social distancing, where individuals are supposed to remain 6 feet apart.

Gerald Hutchinson is the athletic director at Penobscot Valley High in Howland, in Penobscot County. He expects the county to be green coded, with schools offering in-person instruction, but he’s not sure all sports can be offered.

“There are some sports we could hold,” Hutchinson said. “There are some, if they don’t pull back on the 6-foot social distancing mandate, I don’t think can be done.”

That would be soccer, field hockey and football, sports that are all involve close, sustained contact.

Cony High football coach B.L. Lippert runs runs plays during the Maine Elite Passing Camp on Thursday in Augusta. Cony Athletic Director Jon Millett said he wonders about the feasibility of state championships this season. “I don’t want my teams competing against anybody in southern Maine. It’s too much of a risk,” he says. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

CONSIDERING ALL OPTIONS

Todd Livingston, the athletic director at South Portland in Cumberland County, said it is unlikely his county would be green by the time school opens. “Most likely we’ll open in yellow,” he said. “And under those circumstances, are you going to be able to offer after-school activities? That’s the question we have to ask.”

Brewer’s Utterback said schools with a hybrid system for classes could have sports. “I think you could because that would mean you’re able to offer aspects of the academic setting with reasonable accommodations,” he said. “You’ve seen schools begin to go down that road with optional summer workouts and safety precautions in place, and several schools are showing that pathway now.”

That’s where it becomes a local decision. “I think the MPA is going to supply us with guidelines, and then each community needs to evaluate where they belong in relations to sports,” said Lewiston’s Fuller. “How important is it? How safe is it?”

The MPA will allow schools to redo their schedules should they lose opponents during the season and will not penalize a school that has to temporarily shut down because of a virus outbreak. Some sports are considering an open tournament, where everyone qualifies.

Cony Athletic Director Jon Millett said he wonders about the feasibility of state championships this season.

“I don’t want my teams competing against anybody in southern Maine. It’s too much of a risk,” he said. “I don’t see how we can have a state championship in any sport this year, and really call it a state championship, because there are going to be schools that can’t compete.”

Millett said he thinks there’s a “50-50” chance of Cony fielding teams, and that having sports may depend on safety measures beyond masks and social distancing.

And that’s why, Burnham said, the decision to play will remain a local decision. “And schools are still trying to figure things out,” he said.

Unless a school is in a red zone, officials expect to offer some form of athletic activities, if only, said Yarmouth’s Dolloff, “to provide as much normalcy to people as possible.”

For those who deem it not safe to play interscholastic sports, that may be a continuance of the MPA’s summer workouts or it may involve intramurals. At least four athletic directors and a superintendent suggested in conversations that intramurals may be a top option this fall.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” said Fryeburg Academy Athletic Director Sue Thurston. “If we can’t play interscholastic, we’re going to offer everything intramurally as long as we’re in school and the coaches will run it that way. We will try to make it a formalized season and do it with all sports.”

“Our plan, even if we’re in a hybrid, is to offer something,” said Kennebunk Athletic Director Joe Schwartzman. “Intramurals, or just practice until we can get to green and we can bring everyone together.”

For now, schools can only wait for guidelines from the state and the MPA, and plan for a fall season that may not happen.

“I have high hopes,” said Penobscot Valley’s Hutchinson. “But it doesn’t look good.”

– Staff writer Steve Craig, and Bill Stewart and Drew Bonifant of Central Maine Newspapers, contributed to this report. 

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