As Maine continues to wrestle with its plan for fall high school sports during the coronavirus pandemic, New Hampshire has already moved ahead.

With a clearly stated plan backed by both the state athletic organization and the governor’s office, many school boards across New Hampshire have already given their districts approval to begin competition in most sports by Sept. 18, with football starting Sept. 25.

Superintendents and school boards in Maine will face similar decisions once guidelines from the Maine Principals’ Association are reviewed by state officials and returned to MPA.

What that review looks like is unclear. Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, provided a statement late Monday.

“The Administration, including the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, are currently reviewing the guidance as requested by the MPA,” Farwell said in the statement. “This review includes, as DHHS Commissioner (Jeanne) Lambrew noted during last Thursday’s media briefing, ensuring that the guidance complies with the State’s public health requirements to limit the spread of COVID-19, a basic standard that any organization in Maine must meet in developing its individual guidance. The Administration also expects to offer feedback for MPA to consider on how best it can protect the health of children, school staff, and communities.

“The Administration plans to communicate the results of this review to the MPA and Maine Superintendents as soon as possible within the coming days. We appreciate the challenge in developing guidance for school sports in the midst of a pandemic and share many Maine people’s passion for promoting safe physical activity.”

Jeffrey Collins of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association said the one clear difference between his state and Maine boils down to direction from New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

“The governor’s reopening task force and the Department of Health and Human Services gave the green light for athletics to come back on July 3,” Collins said. “That’s really the difference between our state and Maine.”

Most New Hampshire school districts are moving forward with football. According to the website New Hampshire Football Report, 36 of the state’s 58 programs have indicated they will play football, four do not intend to play football and 18 have yet to make a decision.

Some school districts in New Hampshire are still in the decision-making process. For example, schools like Winnacunnet, of Hampton, and Exeter have made the full commitment to all sports. Portsmouth, on the other hand, has formed a committee to review the initial recommendation of its Superintendent Steve Zadravec to offer only cross country and golf. Further complicating the situation is that Rus Wilson, the athletic director at Portsmouth High, died unexpectedly on Monday.

There are key differences between New Hampshire and Maine when it comes to guidelines for the return to amateur and youth sports.

New Hampshire’s guidelines allowed practices and competitions in every sport from badminton to wrestling. Maine’s community sports guidelines assigned risk categories to different sports, recommending that “high-risk” sports, including soccer and football, should not hold competitions.

Collins said the state’s guidelines served as the core for his organization to begin its review of how to conduct interscholastic sports. The NHIAA received clear guidance that those rules would be applicable to interscholastic sports.

Then the NHIAA added a few stricter restrictions, including temperature checks for all athletes before every practice or game. In most ways, the NHIAA’s plan for resuming sports mirrors the MPA’s. Both New Hampshire and Maine call for regional schedules, shortened seasons and myriad protocols to create social distancing and mitigate the risk of people contracting COVID-19.

“From what I’ve seen, the Maine plans are very similar to ours to resume sports but the green light has been given by our governor way back in the summer,” said Collins, whose group provided its plans for fall sports to school administrators by Aug. 6.

“It all starts with the fact that the governor and his task force had approved all the sports that we offered to (be able) to play,” said Exeter High Athletic Director Bill Ball, who also has been the school’s football coach for 27 years.

Ball runs one of New Hampshire’s top football programs both in terms of participation and success (seven championships, 16 title game appearances since 1997). He has 115 players signed up this year. He knows this season will be vastly different, starting with the fact that his school will be fully remote with its learning model. Instead of carrying 85 players on his varsity, he’ll have about 54 – so he can fit his team on two buses. The freshman, JV and varsity teams will practice separately. Within each practice, groups will work in small cohorts, contact will be limited, and none of the school facilities will be used.

All told, 450 students are expected to participate in athletics this fall at Exeter, Ball said. For him, that’s 450 students who will be getting needed social and emotional release within an education-based framework monitored by trained coaches.

“Eyes on students, that’s the big buzzword and this is an opportunity to get eyes on students, to see how things are going, not only in the classroom but to pick up on everyday social things,” Ball said. “It’s an avenue to do that and an important avenue to do that.”

Overall, there are 89 NHIAA-member schools. Maine has approximately 140 to 145 schools participating each season in its sanctioned athletics.

“We start a week from Tuesday and there’s sill a lot school districts that don’t know what they are playing,” Collins said.

The same can be said of Maine. The MPA’s plans call for official team practices to start on Sept. 8, with games beginning no sooner than Sept. 18. The first football games would begin Sept. 25.

Ball said all summer long he’s been asked, “Who’s in?” especially as it relates to New Hampshire football.

“I would always retort and say, ‘The question is, who’s out?’ You’re in until you declare,” Ball said.

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