AUGUSTA — The fate of fall high school sports in Maine will now be largely determined at local levels.

The state Department of Education gave schools the green light to offer in-person instruction for students this fall after it announced its color-coded advisory system for all counties Friday.

The state designated every Maine county as “green,” meaning the risk of COVID-19 is low. Red (high risk) and yellow (elevated risk) were other possible options.

With schools able to explore in-person learning – so long as health and safety measures are implemented as required by the DOE – the return of high school sports will most likely be decided by superintendents in each district.

“What it means is optimism,” said Jim Leonard, the athletic director at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. “Fall sports is in the hands of superintendents.”

“That’s great news,” added John Suttie, principal at Old Orchard Beach High School and RSU 23 superintendent. “Now it’s just got to be green on Aug. 28. … I’m shocked. I was expecting yellow all day, every day, in (York County).”

The DOE will update its three-tiered ratings every two weeks.

The announcement Friday comes a day after the Maine Principals’ Association provided new guidelines for a shortened fall season, as well as for coach-guided conditioning programs.

The MPA delayed the start of the fall sports season to Sept. 8, when teams can begin practicing. Competition would begin Sept. 18.

Some superintendents and athletic directors were surprised to see their counties given the green designation. And some cautioned that much work needs to be done before athletics can begin.

“This is a step in the right direction. Even though it’s green, we are still going to have all the guidelines to follow,” said Gordie Salls, the athletic director at Sanford High School. “This doesn’t mean sports will return as it was before COVID started. We’re still going to have to follow all the guidelines. And it’s still going to be a challenge for some schools to have all their kids in school at once because of social distancing. I’m very happy we’re green, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Added Suttie: “Now it goes back to us being able to implement health and safety standards and being able to overcome the logistical obstacles that those health and safety standards could create. There’s no question there are significant barriers for athletics as a whole, but we all know that those barriers in some sports are easier to overcome than others.”

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Yarmouth schools, said maintaining the green designation will be the key, which means strictly following state safety guidelines. When it comes to sports, ensuring protective measures and social distancing rules are followed by teams and fans is important, he said.

“For athletics, that may mean games with limited fans in restricted seating areas and significant limitations on some activities where students are in physical contact with one another,” Dolloff said. “Still, we all have to be happy with the fact that we’re green. It’s a tribute to the steps we’ve taken as a state and as individuals to contain the spread of the virus.”

The social distancing marks are shown on the pavement leading to Alumni Field ticket booths at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Jim Palmer, the athletic director at Oak Hill High in Wales, said the statewide green designations were particularly good news for his school, which draws students from Kennebec County and harder-hit Androscoggin County.

“It makes it a little bit of an easier process. If one (county) was another color – one’s green, one’s yellow, or one’s yellow, one’s red – then you’ve got to try to figure out which way to go with it,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I try not to get too optimistic, because things can change.”

Gardiner Athletic Director Nate Stubbert acknowledged being surprised that all counties were labeled green, and said he hopes this gives tentative administrators more peace of mind going into the season.

“I think it’s great. … The most optimistic you can be is having the whole state be green,” he said. “I hope that they’re cautiously optimistic with this announcement, knowing that schools are going to take all the necessary measurements that they need to to ensure safety for all the students.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Mike Lowe contributed to this report.

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