The Maine Principals’ Association on Tuesday delayed a decision on whether to hold high school sports this fall, and its executive director cautioned that some sports could be shifted to a different season.

“There are certainly no promises,” the MPA’s Mike Burnham said. “We understand the complexity of this issue and would be remiss if we didn’t say there is a distinct chance that our fall is going to be very limited.”

The MPA delayed its decision so it can seek clarification from state officials on guidelines that will allow a safe return to sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. High school sports in Maine have been shut down since April 9.

At issue are differing guidelines about sports activities from two state agencies: The Department of Economic and Community Development, which issued its guidelines in late May for community sports, and the Department of Education, which last week announced protocols for physical education classes.

Burnham said it would be difficult to offer a fall season under the DOE guidelines, which emphasize no activities with physical contact along with strict face mask wearing and physical distancing guidelines.

Burnham said the MPA came close to canceling the fall season last week, after the DOE released its updated guidelines. He sent a letter to state officials asking for clarity, stressing the importance of sports for the social and mental health of the student-athletes and the need for consistency in guidelines.  “There are two sets of standards,” he said. “Community sports has one set of guidelines and school-based activities have another set of guidelines.”

A DOE spokeswoman told the Press Herald Tuesday afternoon that the department’s guidelines for physical education classes do not apply to interscholastic athletics, which are overseen by the MPA.

Kelli Deveaux, director of communications for DOE, said in an email that “with respect to State guidance, the Maine Department of Education’s Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction does not address interscholastic sports. The Framework links to pre-K-12 and Adult Education Public Health Guidance for physical education courses, which are required in Maine schools for all children, and are separate and distinct from voluntary interscholastic sports.”

She went on to say that while the community sports guidelines were not “intended to address school-based athletics, the administration has communicated to the MPA that it will review those guidelines and examine areas of alignment with MPA’s guidance.”

MPA officials said late Tuesday that the physical education class guidelines are not the source of the confusion. School administrators are seeking advice as to whether the guidelines for classrooms should be the same for athletic fields.

“I think that’s the premise they are working under, given those (classroom) guidelines without any other guidelines around athletics and activities,” Burnham said. “I think school leaders, rightfully so, look at these (athletic) programs as an extension of the classroom and, without any other scientifically-based data, are following those guidelines.”

Burnham said the latest conversations with state officials, which were held Monday and included the governor’s office, the DOE and the Department of Health and Human Services, “gave us a lifeline” and is allowing school officials to consider other guidelines – either those for community sports “or somewhere in between.”

The MPA hoped to have a final decision on fall sports by Tuesday. Its Interscholastic Management Committee, which votes on all of the MPA’s major issues, is scheduled to meet again next week but a decision could be made sooner if guidance from the state comes earlier.

The MPA offers football, field hockey, golf, volleyball, boys’ and girls’ cross country and boys’ and girls’ soccer in the fall. Burnham said it is possible that some fall sports could be moved to later in the school year and that others, such as tennis, could be moved to the fall.

“Those conversations have started,” Burnham said.

He noted that golf and cross country are the two sports that could possibly be held this fall under the DOE guidelines.

Burnham said time is of the essence. The MPA began a voluntary summer conditioning program in July, with Phase 4 set to begin next Monday. Schools in Cumberland and York counties have not participated in any of the summer programs yet.

Tryouts for fall sports were supposed to have begun this week, but have been pushed back by the MPA to Sept. 8, with games scheduled to begin Sept. 18. Burnham noted on Tuesday that the Sept. 8 date was not a “line in the sand” and could be adjusted if schools needed more time to bring students back to class and establish COVID-19 safety protocols.

Burnham and members of the MPA Interscholastic Management Committee stressed that they would rather have a decision on the fall season “sooner than later” but need more guidance. “As soon as we have a direction which guidelines we should be following, that’s all we need and we can move forward from there,” Burnham said.

The DOE’s Deveaux said the state will continue to work with the MPA, but added, “Ultimately, any decision about interscholastic sports will be made by the MPA.”

But even if the MPA approves all sports, or some of them, for the fall, it will ultimately be a local decision whether schools offer interscholastic activities or not.

“We will develop the guidelines,” Burnham said. “But we can’t make the decision for each district.”

Aaron Filieo, South Portland High’s football coach and a social studies and language arts teacher at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, said he wasn’t surprised the MPA did not make a final decision.

Across the nation, Filieo said, “it usually does come from the state capital or state agencies. I always felt at some point Augusta would have to weigh in and say, ‘We’ll make an exception for contact sports.’ That’s what I’m hoping the MPA will seek and find when they connect with Augusta on these issues.”

If school sports are canceled, Filieo believes students will either seek club sport options where coaches and organizations would have less oversight or, worse, simply drop out of school. The latter group would be susceptible to mental and emotional health issues, he said.

“I’m basing this on what happened this spring,” Filieo said. “If the fall season is canceled, they’ll drop out, or they become depressed and then they’re going to self-medicate and we’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands (with) long-term significant negative impacts. The decision makers really need to play out those scenarios.”

While another delay in the decision on whether high school sports will be held this fall is frustrating for everyone involved, South Portland High Athletic Director Todd Livingston said the MPA must consider all possibilities.

“I think we all would have liked to have known a month ago,” Livingston said. “But I also think we need to let the process play out. If letting the process play out another week means we have a fall season, I’ve got to support that.”

Livingston said it is important that the state have consistent guidelines for both school-based sports and community sports, which include AAU teams and travel teams. Those teams have been playing all summer under the community sports guidelines.

“Summer activities and sports are happening,” he said. “So communities are looking at that and saying, ‘They did it all summer. Why can’t schools do it?’ My answer is that we have guidelines that we follow and they might be different from those that are out there. And we need to follow them to a ‘T.’ That’s the difference. … We provide an educationally-based, sound opportunity for our athletes.”

Deering High boys’ soccer coach Joel Costigan, a teacher at the high school, believes the sport can be played. But he is concerned about unknowns surrounding COVID-19, including heart damage that has been linked to the disease, and the possibility of transmission to older family members who are at greater risk.

“If we can make it work and be safe, then I’m down, I’m for (having a season),” Costigan said. “I’ll do my job as a responsible coach and make sure kids are following procedures, but I can’t control when a kid goes home and I can’t control the other team.”

The MPA’s Burnham is aware of impatience among all parties including fans to have an answer about the fall.

“I know that there have been some rumors out there that we have already made up our mind, that it was a foregone conclusion that today would be the formal vote to eliminate fall sports,” he said. “I don’t have that formal recommendation, we continue to do everything we can to try save all, if not all at least a portion of some of our fall programs.”

– Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.


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