Gary Stevens, director of athletics and student activities at Thornton Academy, has been moderating online meetings of the Pandemic Project Task Force. “When you’re an athletic director, especially in these times, you do not operate on an island,” he says. “You have to surround yourself with experts and different ideas. A collective approach strengthens.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, more than two dozen Maine high school athletic directors have reached out to their peers in the Northeast and Midwest to share ideas on best practices and strategies for restarting sports.

Dubbed the Pandemic Project Task Force by its organizer, Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens, the online group came about after Stevens was asked to help a colleague write a paper about the implications of COVID-19 for a professional publication.

Stevens said he knew he needed to research the topic himself, so he sought advice from a few athletic directors in the SMAA – virtually, of course, because all in-person contact ended in mid-March when schools across the state closed their doors. Then he added some ADs from the Penobscot Valley Conference to the conversation. Before long, Stevens was inviting colleagues from around the Northeast, the professional learning collaborative was officially launched, and the professional paper put on hold.

“This process reinforces to me, when you’re an athletic director, especially in these times, you do not operate on an island,” Stevens said. “You have to surround yourself with experts and different ideas. A collective approach strengthens.”

On Monday the group held its fourth biweekly meeting via Zoom, moderated by Stevens. Fifty-three people signed in, which has been the norm. Most are athletic directors but the group has included doctors, lawyers, coaches, school administrators, athletic trainers and, on this day, a staff writer with the Portland Press Herald.

Athletic directors in Maine heard from Scott Garvis, an athletic director from Akeny, Iowa, who was hours away from having his high school baseball team play its first game of the season. Baseball and softball in Iowa traditionally run through late July and Iowa is the first state to return to sanctioned high school competition. Garvis was peppered with questions about how his 1,110-student school has planned for things like transportation (13 players on a bus), fan seating (80 people in a bleacher designed for 600-plus), and sanitizing and social distancing precautions. They asked Garvis to send a copy of his waivers to allow parents to drive athletes to games, and an app the school is using to assist in daily health screening and temperature checks.

When Brewer High Athletic Director David Utterback outlined his proposal for switching several sports considered low-risk activities to the fall, and then readjusting the entire sports schedule, the roles were reversed. Utterback’s proposal quickly prompted chat questions from ADs in Ohio and upstate New York.

Over the four weeks, the group has also heard from an attorney who specializes in the legal issues surrounding interscholastic sports, and athletic trainers detailing health concerns and the associated costs that could be expected. Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee and a prominent orthopedist with years of experience studying sport safety issues, has been a frequent contributor.

On Monday, Heinz reminded that “until we have a treatment, a vaccine or herd immunity, everyone is susceptible to the virus,” and that as sports and in-school operations begin to reopen, “we’re going to see spikes in different areas where we haven’t seen them before and we’re just going to have to anticipate that and deal with that.”

Jay Hammes of Racine, Wisconsin, serves as one of the group’s key members. A retired athletic director and good friend of Stevens, Hammes is the founder and president of Safe Sport Zone, a non-profit created in 2009 for the purpose of training schools on after-school security. Hammes serves as the group’s eyes and ears on national trends.

Hammes noted that Maine is currently reducing its daily new-case COVID-19 count while slowly re-opening businesses and activities. “But we should always plan in case the virus surges,” Hammes said. “Across the country we saw 22 of 50 states surge last week.”

After the meeting, Hammes said Monday’s session drove home the point that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a long time, well into the 2021-22 school year. While that can be depressing, and the constant revision of plans frustrating, being part of a group eases the anxiety, he said.

“The people I’ve talked to, and there are about 17, 18 of us not from Maine and there’s a lot of young ADs,” Hammes said. “It’s beneficial to ease the fear that we’re all in this together. And you go back over the (two months), every one of these meeting has been extremely informative.”

Each meeting is broken into several specific topics, usually with one group member identified as the primary “expert” for that segment. Stevens serves as the expert moderator, quickly introducing each person and keeping an eye on chat questions.

“For myself personally, it’s been a way for me to gather information and best practices and when I leave these meetings, I try to drill down to what can work here at Thornton Academy,” Stevens said.

In the second and third meetings, Sanford Athletic Director Gordie Salls was a key speaker. Salls is a member of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

“I think (the Pandemic Project) gives a broader scope of what other states are doing. You try, not to align with them, but use it more as a reference point of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Salls said. “Here in Maine, we’re trying to make sure we start school on time. So all the decisions we’re making, whether it’s the Sports Medicine Committee or not, is focused on making sure we start school on time.”

Stevens said the plan is to continue with the Pandemic Project and welcomes interested participants to request an invitation by sending him an email at [email protected] The next meeting is scheduled for June 29 at 10 a.m.


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