The Maine Principals’ Association has delayed the start of the fall high school sports season by one week as it works with state agencies to develop appropriate COVID-19 safety guidelines.

The announcement on Wednesday was made in a joint news release from the principals association, the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Mills administration after the parties met earlier in the day. The statement included a rare public comment about high school sports from Gov. Janet Mills.

It comes a day after state education and health officials urged the MPA to delay the season in a sharply worded letter that outlined how some of the association’s guidelines for fall sports fell short of the state’s safety guidelines.

The delay comes as schools scramble to reopen in the coming weeks during the coronavirus pandemic. Any decisions about playing sports have public heath implications that go far beyond school campuses.

Mike Burnham, the executive director of the principals association, said the first official team practices will be pushed back to Monday, Sept. 14, with the first countable games held on Friday, Sept. 25. Practices were to have started Tuesday. Maine’s high school sports have been shut down since April 9 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Maine Principals’ Association agrees with the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education that it would be best to extend the delay of fall sports by one additional week to allow schools to get their academic programs underway as we further adjust our guidance,” Burnham said in the release.

“In the coming days, we will work closely and collaboratively with the administration to modify our guidance and arrive at a solution that will honor the state’s safety protocols and protect the health and safety of student athletes along with their communities. We are grateful to the departments for their response to our request for feedback and look forward to working with them so that students may be able to play sports as quickly and as safely as possible.”

Previously, the MPA had delayed the start of official fall practices from Aug. 17 to Sept. 8. High school coaches and officials frustrated by the delays are trying to stay hopeful.

“I’ve never been a big fan of roller coasters anyway, but it seems like I’m on a long one,” said Mary Beth Bourgoin, the head coach of Winslow’s defending Class B state championship field hockey team. “We all are … they just keep pushing it down the road, until we eventually have no season.”

Mills also weighed in on the fall sports season. Unlike governors in many states, she has not been publicly involved in the debate about restarting high school sports.

“I am a firm believer in the value of school sports which support the physical, social, and mental health of young people,” Mills said in the release. “I want to see fall sports come back this year in a way that protects the health of students on the field, in the locker room and in the classroom, while safeguarding members of the larger community.

“I am asking my commissioners to work as a team with the MPA, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association to address concerns about the guidance as quickly as possible with the most important goal in mind: protecting the health and safety of Maine students, their extended families, their teachers and fellow students, and all members of our broader Maine community.”

Mills’ words had an impact on school administrators.

“It was good to hear the support in the release,” Brewer High Athletic Director Dave Utterback said. “I think she’s always supported what we’re trying to do in education and athletics, but had been mum on the subject. So it was good to read that aspect.”

Sanford High Athletic Director Gordie Salls, who also is a member of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, said the governor’s statement makes a big difference.

“I wish she could have been more involved earlier,” he said. “But it’s nice to see her finally come out with a stance and some direction.”

Last week, the principals association approved all fall sports activities, pending a review by state officials, with modified rules established by the Sports Medicine Committee. Fall sports include football, cross country, golf, field hockey, volleyball and soccer.

But on Tuesday, the state sent a letter to the principals association, notifying it that not all of its safety protocols met the state’s guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and requesting that it further revise its guidelines.

MPA officials met with state officials throughout the day Wednesday working on aligning those guidelines. The parties will continue to work throughout this week, although there is no timetable as to when the work will be done. That is one of the reasons the MPA pushed the start of fall practices back again.

“I’m not really surprised,” said John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach. “We understand that they’re trying to figure out a way to work out the guidelines. I’m hopeful that they will come to agreement on those, and that we can get people out engaging in physical activities.”

The MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee had come up with modified safety guidelines for all its sports, including soccer and football – two sports that had been classified as high-risk activities in the state’s community sports guidelines of July 16. The principals association had established soccer as a moderate-risk activity in line with guidelines from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Those community sports guidelines were revised by the state on Tuesday, with soccer moving into a moderate-risk category. Under those guidelines, soccer could play regionalized games. But volleyball, also a moderate-risk activity, could only play matches outside. And football remained a high-risk activity, which means it could not play games against other opponents, only intrasquad scrimmages.

In the news release, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Education Commissioner Pender Makin said they recognize time is of the essence, but that “this additional time will allow schools to focus on the challenges of resuming classes and result in guidance that allows school sports consistent with the state’s public health measures and that safeguards the health and safety of all Maine students.”

Even after the MPA’s guidelines are aligned with the state’s guidance, it will be up to individual school districts to decide whether to play fall sports or not. On Wednesday, RSU 24, which includes Sumner Memorial High, announced it was suspending interscholastic activities. Previously, Camden Hills Regional had opted out of the fall season and Deer Isle-Stonington announced it would not play soccer, opting to offer only golf and cross country.

More schools are likely to follow, given concerns about the potential for spreading the coronavirus and uncertainty about the sports guidelines. And that is adding to the frustration of coaches and athletes.

“I would have liked to have started earlier, but at least we’re starting,” Falmouth boys soccer coach Dave Halligan said. “We’re going to get to play some, I hope, though I’m almost at the point now where I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Old Orchard Beach Athletic Director Dean Plante, who is also the school’s football and girls basketball coach, said time is running out on making a decision on the fall season.

“It’s not the 11th hour, it’s the 22nd hour,” he said. “That’s the part that’s driving people crazy. We’re losing parts of the season trying to determine if we’re going to have a season.”

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