High school football and soccer games could not be played this fall under state guidelines presented to the Maine Principals’ Association on Wednesday.

Both sports are in the “high risk” category in the guidelines governing community sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the recommendation of no games or even intrasquad scrimmages. That means unless the guidelines are modified, there will be no football or boys’ or girls’ soccer this fall.

The community sports guidelines from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development provide the clearest picture yet of what high school sports might look like when schools reopen.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday sent an email to the MPA stating that the community sports guidelines were more in line with interscholastic sports than the more stringent return-to-school guidelines established by the Maine Department of Education.

That gives the Maine Principals’ Association the clarification it needs to move forward with plans for the fall season. The MPA had announced Tuesday that it was delaying a decision on the fall season while it sought clarification on which set of guidelines it should follow.

Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA, announced earlier Wednesday that a decision on the fall sports season would be made by Aug. 27. Maine’s high school sports have been shut down since April 9 because of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus.

Burnham said he’s seeking more advice from the Department of Education about how to apply the community sports guidelines.

“I have reached out to the commissioner’s office to say, ‘Are you really trying to open this up for the same as the community health guidelines or are you allowing us to use that as a starting point to develop guidelines that would fit for both school and community based?'” Burnham said. “That’s where we’re at.”

Kelli Deveaux, the director of communications for the Department of Education, said the Department of Economic and Community Development guidelines are “periodically reviewed and updated.”

In an email sent to the MPA Wednesday afternoon and obtained by the Press Herald, the Department of Health and Human Services clarified the difference between the DOE guidelines regarding physical education classes, which require stringent physical distancing guidelines, and the community sports guidelines.

“Physical education classes are universal, meaning they are required for all children in Maine, which includes but is not limited to those who have medical conditions or who are at risk of elevated exposure to COVID-19,” the email said. “As a result, these classes regularly bring together large numbers of children in school fields and gyms.

“In contrast, school-based sports programs are voluntary, meaning they have fewer participants and can take place at different times and places. For these reasons, we do not believe it would be appropriate to extend DOE’s physical education class guidance to voluntary school-based athletic programs.”

The email also stated that the community sports guidelines were close to what the MPA sought: “Although not explicitly developed for this purpose, DECD’s community sports guidance is most applicable to school-based sports programs, and it would be appropriate for you to use this guidance to assist you in your decision-making process for interscholastic sports.”

Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff said the MPA must now work to apply these guidelines to high school sports. The community sports guidelines were established in June as part of Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, and updated on July 16.

“The community sports guidelines as of July 16 do not allow for soccer or football to be played competitively, but there may be some updates coming along those lines,” Dolloff said. “We don’t know the date that Phase 2 under these guidelines will end – or what happens in Phase 3.  That is yet to be determined.”

Football and soccer may not be the only sports listed as high-risk activities – those that involved “close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.” Among the other high-risk activities are “running events where physical distance cannot be maintained.” In other words, cross country.

However, cross country is considered a lower-risk activity – as long as it includes staggered starts – in the guidelines presented by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Soccer is listed as a moderate-risk activity according to the NFHS. The MPA has been using the NFHS guidelines, as well as recommendations from its Sports Medicine Committee, in drawing up safety guidelines.

Of the other fall sports offered by the MPA, field hockey and volleyball are categorized as moderate-risk sports in the state’s community sports guidelines, while golf is listed as a low-risk activity.

Dolloff said that regardless of which guidelines were being used by the MPA, “the path to high contact sports such as football or soccer is difficult, or impossible.”

Burnham has noted repeatedly that the MPA’s individual fall sports committees have been working throughout the summer to come up with guidelines to make their sports safer. He also has said there is the possibility of moving sports to other seasons.

In an MPA Media Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday morning, Burnham mentioned that it could be difficult to play football this fall. At least 16 states and the District of Columbia have decided not to play tackle football at high schools this fall. On Wednesday, Massachusetts became the latest state to make that decision, pushing football to February.

Cony High football coach B.L. Lippert doesn’t believe moving the football season is the answer.

“I think the (COVID-19) numbers might be worse in March,” Lippert said. “We’ve been doing everything we possibly can to give ourselves an opportunity (to play this fall). I understand the nature of football is conducive to people hitting each other, spit is flying, just the nature of the sport is physical. That maybe isn’t the greatest for COVID-19, but I was hoping some of the (club sports) that occurred over the summer – the basketball, baseball, football camps – might give us the opportunity to play.”

The high school season, already delayed once, is set to begin Sept. 8 with fall tryouts. The first date for games would be Sept. 18.

Also on Wednesday, school superintendents in Cumberland and York counties decided Wednesday to delay any interscholastic athletic activities until Sept. 8, also the opening day for many school districts. Elsewhere in the state, Phase IV of the MPA’s summer conditioning program is set to begin on Monday, open to only fall sports teams.

The schools in York and Cumberland counties have not participated in any of the MPA’s summer conditioning programs.

Dolloff said the potential of a late-summer COVID-19 outbreak loomed over the decision to once again delay the activities.

“We are working diligently to ensure we can get our academic and athletic year started properly,” he said. “We cannot risk a further delay to the start of the school year by holding athletic programming on school grounds for two weeks prior to the start of school. By delaying until Sept. 8, we can focus on starting the school year and ensuring that we can begin on that date without fear of a contamination occurring  through our own sports programs prior to that.”

But, he added, school superintendents understand the importance of high school sports to the community and to the students.

“I know it’s frustrating waiting for an answer, but it’s better to work through this and possibly provide some sort of safe athletic programming than to either let things move forward without restraint or to cancel sports altogether,” he said.

Messalonskee girls’ soccer coach Chris DelGiudice said he and his players are holding out hope for a fall season.

“It’s at least a step closer to being able to play,” he said of the community sports guidelines.

“We have to stay optimistic. Everything’s kind of progressed well so far, and it’s moved – maybe not as fast as everybody’s wanted it to, but it has been moving in the right direction.”

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


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