The Bonny Eagle High football team celebrates after winning the 2019 Class A state championship. In late July, the Maine Principals’ Association announced plans for a shortened, six-game regular season for football teams this fall. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Will there be high school sports this fall? And if so, which ones can be played safely during the pandemic?

The answers vary widely across the country – even here in New England, where the start of the school year is only a few weeks away. Consider these actions in the past week:

The Vermont Principals’ Association announced that there will be no tackle football. Instead, plans are being made for 7-on-7 flag football. Volleyball matches will not be held indoors. For most sports, facial coverings are to be worn at all times by competitors, coaches and spectators.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference announced it was moving forward with plans for all fall sports, including football. Two days later, the season was put on hold after the state Department of Public Health advised moving football and volleyball to next spring.

The Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs set stringent guidelines that will take effect Monday for all youth and amateur sports, including high schools. To compete in any sport, “Deliberate close contact must be eliminated. Deliberate close contact includes but is not limited to collisions, body checking, tackling, blocking, and racing/riding in packs.” In other words, forget about tackle football.

Here in Maine, the answers are likely to become clearer this week.

The Maine Principals’ Association announced in late July that it would plan for all of the traditional fall sports, albeit with shortened seasons for most of them. In the weeks since, the MPA’s individual sport committees have been devising safety guidelines and plans for postseason play. The MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss these sport-specific plans.

Practices for fall sports had been scheduled to begin on Monday, but the MPA decided in July to push them back to Sept. 8. Competitions will not begin until at least Sept. 18.

Soccer and other fall sports were to have started practice for the 2020 season on Monday. The Maine Principals’ Association decided in July to push back the start of team practices until Sept. 8. Games will start no sooner than Sept. 18. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We are working diligently to find a way to safely offer fall activities,” MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said last week. “We continue to work with each one of our individual sport committees, our MPA Sports Medicine Committee, and all of our educational partners here in Maine, as well as working with other states in New England, and throughout the country, as we discuss what a plan for the fall may look like here in Maine.”

It remains to be seen whether all of the fall sports – football, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, cross country and golf – will be offered. Plans change quickly during a pandemic.

North Carolina, for example, also announced in July that it was pushing back the start of practices, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1. Then, on Wednesday, it decided to halt all fall sports until at least early November. Football will begin in February.

“We want our young people to be able to play, but for sure we want them to be able to play in a manner that is safe and healthy,” said Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, in a statement.

In all, 36 states plus the District of Columbia have made some modifications to their fall high school sports seasons. Fifteen of those will not offer tackle football this fall. Eight athletic organizations – California, Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia – have postponed all interscholastic sports until at least November.

At the other end of the spectrum, 14 states have not altered their high school seasons at all. That includes eight states currently experiencing “uncontrolled spread” of the virus (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee), according to COVIDexitstrategy.org, a website that tracks metrics on response to the virus outbreak.

In Alabama, at least five high school football teams were in quarantine last week because players had tested positive for COVID-19. That includes Vestavia Hills High School, where Coach Buddy Anderson (the state record holder with 342 wins), his wife and some players had tested positive, forcing the team to cancel its first two games.

Volleyball is the only high school sport in Maine played indoors during the fall. Minnesota and Hawaii are among states that have moved the sport from the fall to the second half of the school year. Vermont plans to have volleyball played outside this fall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

NUMBERS ARE IN MAINE’S FAVOR

When it comes to mitigating spread of the virus, Maine is a national leader. Only 100 new cases were reported over a seven-day period from Aug. 8-14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker. Alabama had 8,965 over the same span.

Maine’s 14-day test positivity rate for infections, regarded as a key metric for determining potential spread, was a nation-best 0.4 percent on Friday, according to COVIDexitstrategy. By comparison, Alabama’s positivity rate was 13.4 percent, and the national average was 7.2 percent.

On Friday, the Maine Department of Education once again gave the green light for all counties to continue to consider in-person instruction for schools, following an update to its color-coded advisory system.

For months, the MPA has been working closely with with school superintendents, the state Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The MPA designed safety-first conditioning guidelines for athletes during the summer, delayed the start of team practices until after the start of the school year, and urged schools to schedule regional opponents to cut down on travel.

Despite these efforts, and Maine’s success in combating the virus, it’s obviously impossible to protect all kids. On Thursday, Foxcroft Academy became the first Maine high school to report that student-athletes have tested positive for COVID-19. The school said that the two students had been participating in MPA-sanctioned workouts on its campus. It has suspended sports activities.

The school is located in Dover-Foxcroft in Piscataquis County, which has had only six total cases since the start of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, this is probably foreshadowing what will come this fall, as we know the virus exists everywhere,” said Arnold Shorey, Foxcroft Academy’s Head of School, in a news release.

Still, only 9.3 percent of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases have been among people younger than 20, according to the Maine CDC. There have no deaths among that age group.

While COVID-19 deaths among young people have been rare (56 deaths in the 5 to 18 age group nationwide), medical research is increasingly finding a link to other associated diseases, including myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. This was reportedly a major concern for presidents of the Big Ten Conference, which announced last week it was calling off all fall sports – even though eliminating football would mean a revenue hit of over $100 million per school.

“This one to me is a no-brainer. We do not have enough data and not enough time has passed to know if this type of damage to the heart and lung will be outgrown or not,” Dr. Rand McClain told the Press Herald. McClain specializes in sports medicine and is Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, California. “Will it resolve itself in three months or six months? I hope so, but for that alone, we should wait.”

Runners take part in the 2019 Class A Southern Maine regional cross country championships at Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland. Cross country is one of six sports offered by the Maine Principals’ Association in the fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

McClain acknowledged that taking away athletics could put teens at greater risk of depression, substance abuse and a general lack of interest in school.

“That’s absolutely valid and absolutely applicable. What I would argue there is, when you’re out competing and playing against other teams, other athletes – and especially in a sport like football – then you’re subject to your opponent’s compliance to the rules. That’s why I would say, go run track or play tennis.”

THE PLANS IN NEW ENGLAND

The MPA’s Burnham is well aware of how other states are proceeding with plans for restarting high school sports, particularly in the Northeast.

“We have certainly reviewed and discussed plans that other states have developed,” he said. “The six New England states, along with New York and New Jersey, meet weekly to update each other regarding the plans that each of us are working on.”

Maine’s approach to restarting high school sports has been similar to Connecticut’s. Both states developed detailed guidelines for a multi-phase return to practices, starting with small group, non-sport-specific conditioning with significant safety measures in place. Both developed a plan for the fall season that would reduce the number of games played, encourage regional scheduling to reduce travel, and limit fan attendance.

Connecticut was hit hard during the early months of the virus outbreak but has fared much better this summer. As of Friday, its 14-day positivity rate was 0.8 percent, and the average number of new daily COVID-19 cases had dropped from 148 to 77 over the past two weeks.

Still, there has been some confusion about how to proceed with fall sports. Early last week, the football committee of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference voted 9-1 to move its season to next spring, according to the Hartford Courant. The CIAC, in a surprising move, announced Wednesday that football and all sports will be played this fall.

“Based on the input from medical advisors and the continued positive COVID numbers in (Connecticut) while sports are being played, the Board believes it is appropriate to move forward with all fall sports, at this time,” the CIAC said in a statement.

The next day, however, the state’s Department of Public Health advised moving football and volleyball to the spring and to delay the start of all sports activities until at least two weeks after the start of school. The CIAC agreed Friday to pause all team activities until meeting with the Department of Public Health about the fall season.

On Tuesday, Vermont ruled traditional tackle football would not take place this fall, and offered 7-on-7 flag football as an option. In terms of virus health metrics, Vermont is the state most closely aligned to Maine, with little community transmission and new daily cases in the single digits. But Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said football’s physical nature was too dangerous.

“A lot of it comes down to blocking and players being really close to each other – respiratory droplets on each other, breathing on each other, when a player is tackled there is a whole group of people together,” Nichols told the Burlington Free Press. “It became very clear that football is problematic.”

Field hockey is one of five Maine high school sports played by girls in the fall, along with soccer, volleyball, cross country and golf. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

New Hampshire’s approach is somewhat similar to what the MPA announced for Maine in late July. The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association is planning on a full return to fall sports with later start dates and an open-tournament format to encourage regional schedules and eliminate the minimum number of games required. All sports can begin practicing Sept. 8.

Rhode Island, the New England state with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita and a positivity rate near 5 percent, is planning for a four-season approach with no high school competition before Oct. 2. Based on guidelines from Gov. Gina Raimondo, only cross country and girls’ tennis currently are eligible to start Oct. 2. Any fall sports that end up not being able to start then would have a season that begins after the winter sports season and before spring sports.

The pandemic has the ability to rapidly change any state’s situation. Hawaii serves as a cautionary tale.

From the pandemic’s onset through the end of June, Hawaii consistently ranked among the states with the lowest infection rates, with 937 cumulative cases in a state with 1.4 million residents. In comparison, Maine, with a population of 1.34 million, had nearly 3,300 cases as of July 1.

While Maine has continued to suppress the spread of COVID-19 cases, Hawaii’s fortunes changed rapidly. The state reported nearly 1,100 new cases in July and 1,523 new cases in the first 10 days of August. On Aug. 5 the Hawaii High School Athletic Association made the decision to postpone football, cheerleading, cross country and girls’ volleyball until January.

“It has been difficult,” said HHSAA Executive Director Chris Chun, speaking perhaps for all high school decision-makers across the country.


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