The organization that oversees high school athletics across the country has revised its COVID-19 safety guidance, eliminating its tiered system of placing sports in high-, medium- and low-risk categories when it comes to potential infection risk but there are no immediate plans to rewrite Maine’s rules.

When the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) came out with its initial guidance for returning to competition in May 2020, the by-sport risk evaluation was central to its guidance. That same approach, which was echoed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, served as a model for many state organizations, including the Maine Principals’ Association.

On Tuesday, the NFHS said in a press release that its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee now believes community infection rates are a much better predictor of risk and that “proven cases of direct COVID-19 transmission during athletics remain relatively rare.”

The MPA’s School Sports Guidance and Maine’s Community Sports Guidelines use the high-, medium- and low-risk categories as determining factors for the type of activity allowed. Currently, the high-risk sports of football and wrestling are only allowed to hold team-based practice with physically distanced group activities.

“We had a sports medicine committee meeting this morning and we approve of that statement but there are no plans to rewrite the guidelines we put out in Maine,” said Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee.

Jackie Farwell, Communications Director for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the state would review and take into consideration the NFHS recommendations, noting the Community Sports Guidelines are “intended to assist community sports organizers and participants in conducting activities safely.”

The NFHS also stated that evidence increasingly suggests the majority of sports-related COVID-19 transmissions occur from social contact, not the actual playing of the sport. That means safety protocols remain critical to mitigating risk, Heinz said.

“Wearing masks, attention to hygiene, keeping social distance, staying away form big crowds. Those are all still in play,” Heinz said.

The NFHS release pointed out participants in noncontact sports show lower infection rates than those in contact sports; outdoor sports show lower rates of infection than indoor sports; and using face masks for indoor sports results in similar transmission rates to outdoor sports.

The federal CDC also has backed away from putting specific sports into risk categories. It does recommend modifying close-contact sports to increase social distancing.

The MPA announced Friday it would no longer pursue the potential for spring or summer tackle football season. Heinz said that decision lessens any immediate need to rewrite guidelines.

In November, the wrestling season was pushed back to a Feb. 22 start date in the hope conditions would change enough to allow a season. The MPA Wrestling Committee meets Wednesday.

The NFHS acknowledged dropping the tiered risk categories from its recommendation was a significant change. Heinz said it was appropriate.

“Now we have some data and it shows we really don’t need that risk stratification by sport we had before and that transmission is really dependent on how prevalent the disease is in a community,” Heinz said.


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