Superintendents around Maine are looking for more guidance from state and public health officials as they navigate decisions around whether high school sports will be played this fall.

The Maine Principals’ Association decided Thursday to allow all high school sports, including close-contact sports like football and soccer, to be played pending review of its decision by the state.

Some superintendents around Maine said they were surprised by the association’s guidance and feel they have been forced into making difficult decisions, weighing the desires of their communities to get back to normal against what’s in the best interest of public health.

They said they would like to see guidance akin to the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded system for reopening schools and for the same metrics used to determine what’s safe in the school day to be applied to after-school activities.

“I think every superintendent is concerned,” said Paul Penna, superintendent of Buxton-based School Administrative District 6. “We all have the desire to engage our kids and have them involved as much as possible, but it does put pressure on each superintendent by giving them the decisions on how we’ll  discriminate between what sports we’ll play and not play.”

School districts are still working to figure out how they’ll reopen buildings and handle academics this fall, and there are many unanswered questions about how sports would work, Penna said, including how teams will compete if school districts are making individual decisions around whether or not they’ll have a sports season.

He said many young people have been participating in sports and activities over the summer, which would make it hard to not offer those things when students return to school, but there are also questions about what reopening schools will do to the trajectory of the virus.

“This isn’t a local control issue,” Penna said. “This is a public pandemic. It’s a public health issue and if it’s a public health issue then what one community does is not necessarily safe for the next community. Somebody has to make a statement about that. On public health the formula changes a little bit as far as how much local control you should have for the safety of the entire community.”

In Gray-based School Administrative District 15, Superintendent Craig King also said it would be helpful if the Maine Department of Education would give schools guidelines on what is and is not permitted for athletics.

“I think it’s really important to do that,” King said. “I think it’s really not a good idea to have one set of decisions for the academic day and then a different set of standards for after school activities. Everything the school does should be encompassed under one umbrella.”

Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said Gov. Janet Mills’ administration will review the association’s guidance in the coming days to ensure it complies with the state’s public health requirements to limit the spread of COVID-19 and will communicate the results to the association.

“We appreciate the challenge in developing guidance for school sports in the midst of a pandemic and share many Maine people’s passion for promoting safe physical activity,” Deveaux said in an email Friday.

“The department continues to meet with our education colleagues to offer guidance and resources as they navigate the complexities COVID-19 creates when providing for the safety and well-being of their school communities.”

Some school superintendents said Friday that it could be difficult to navigate the inconsistencies between in-school guidance from the department and after-school guidance from the association.

The department’s guidance for physical education classes, for example, says the classes must not include activities with close physical contact and that if physical activity takes place outdoors, students must keep 14 feet of distance if they are not wearing masks and 6 feet if they are wearing masks. Indoors, students must wear masks and maintain 6 feet of physical distance.

The association meanwhile is allowing soccer and football, close-contact sports, to be played and offers different guidance on face masks depending on the sport.

“Athletics and other extracurricular activities are being treated in a completely different manner, like somehow they’re different because students are voluntarily participating,” King said. “The fact is 60 percent participate, so I think it is really incumbent on the department to be a leader in the decision making about what that will look like.”

Winthrop Public Schools Superintendent James Hodgkin said that if fall sports are approved by the state, the call for his district will be made by the five-person Winthrop School Committee. Hodgkin said the matter will be discussed at a school board meeting Wednesday.

“It’s really undecided,” he said. “I would not want to make that decision on my own, and I’m not in a position to make that decision for Winthrop.”

Hodgkin said he was “disappointed” by the Maine Principals’ Association’s decision to green-light fall sports, given all the attention that’s been paid to staying safe in the school buildings.

“I don’t know how we work so hard to keep our kids safe during the day,” he said, “and then we send them out and participate in sports that are very physical, with students from other schools, and then expect them to come back and keep our school safe. As much as I’m an advocate for sports, I think that that’s an unnecessary risk.”

Timothy Doak, who is superintendent for both School Administrative District 20 in Fort Fairfield and Regional School Unit 39 in Caribou, said both districts have held steady throughout the association’s four phases during the summer. In an email, Doak said he was surprised by the recommended guidelines.

“I was surprised the guidelines were very minimal in nature and not a lot different for fall sports last year,” Doak said. “With the harvest break in Aroostook County, I am a little concerned if a season can be accomplished with the time we have left to put games in the book. The MPA decision process has gone on for weeks, and to come to this determination for the MPA guidelines, and now having to wait for other state agencies to rule on fall sports, leaves a lot of schools in danger of not having a season.”

With the possibility of the fate of fall sports laying in the hands of individual school districts, Doak said school boards are forced to make difficult decisions.

“I believe a lot of superintendents were looking for a decision from the MPA yesterday,” Doak said. “Now it will ultimately come down to the superintendents and school boards having to make the hard decision. It’s a very tough place for school boards to be when faced with the safety of children and possible community dissent, especially during one of the toughest times any school leader has been faced with during their career in education. School leaders throughout this pandemic have been placed in the constant dilemma of making a bad decision or a horrible decision.”

While some school districts, like Camden Hills which has already opted out of the fall season, have already started to make decisions on high school sports, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

In response to questions about the fall sports season, Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, issued a short statement saying “We’re waiting to hear from the public health authorities. We are committed to following their guidance on this and all related matters.”

The statement did not respond to a specific question from a reporter about the association’s decision and a statement from the Maine School Management Association Thursday saying the decision has shifted pressure to superintendents and school boards.

Matt Nelson, superintendent of the Sanford School Department, said he too is waiting to see what further guidance the state comes out with but shares concerns about whether the same precautions will be applied to the school day as after-school activities.

“One thing that could be challenging is you may have guidelines that are during the school day and then have guidelines for after the school day and those guidelines may be different,” he said. “If so, is that OK? I think from a superintendent’s standpoint we’re looking out for the safety of all our students.

“I think the priority would be the school day and looking at it that way. I’m just letting the process play out. My understanding is some other people are weighing in on this and I’m curious to see what they say.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writers Dave Dyer and Drew Bonifant contributed to this report. 

 


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