Thornton Academy football players, along with all other Maine student-athletes, await word from state agencies if the fall sports season will be given the go-ahead to proceed. The regular season is scheduled to begin on Sept. 8. Courtesy photo/Thornton Academy

SACO — A unanimous decision was made by the Maine Principals’ Association’s 12-member Interscholastic Management Committee on Aug. 27 to allow all fall sports to be played at Maine high schools, starting on Sept. 8. However, there was an unforeseen development just hours earlier at the state level that may curtail the vote by the MPA’s IMC.

At the 2 p.m. Maine CDC press briefing, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that any decision by the MPA would then need vetting by state agencies to ensure that their plan was compliant with policies developed at the state level, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that agencies have not had time to review the guidelines developed by the MPA, and agencies would inform the MPA whether or not the guidelines were compliant with state mandates. Both Lambrew and Mike Burnham, the executive director of the MPA’s Interscholastic Division, stated there is no timeline for when state agencies will review the MPA’s guidelines.

The statement by Lambrew was unforeseen by many, due to comments by the Maine Department of Education in an earlier statement. On Aug. 18, Maine DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux reported that any decision about fall athletics would be made by the MPA, not the state.

Still, the unanimous decisions by the Interscholastic Management Committee and the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee were major steps forward towards hosting a fall sports season. Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens alluded to the current situation using, fittingly, a sports analogy. “We are in the sixth or seventh inning of a nine-inning baseball game with the closer lurking in the distance,” said Stevens. “There is still a lot of uncertainty over a number of fundamental questions that we will need to know moving forward — including the use of locker rooms — that is causing consternation among my colleagues and frustration for coaches. However, we are still in the game.”

During the Aug. 26 MPA Sports Medicine Committee meeting, sports were finalized into three categories of risk due to COVID-19 — low-risk, moderate-risk, and high-risk. Golf and cross country are the only two low-risks sports offered by the MPA. Boys and girls soccer, and volleyball, were categorized as moderate-risk. The sport that has dominated the discussion about safely returning to play, football, was the only sport categorized as high-risk.

Dr. William Heinz, a member of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, said during the Aug. 27 Interscholastic Management Committee meeting that the SMC has been following the start of the high school football season around the country, and he said that over 1,000 games have already been played around the United States. No outbreaks have been reported at schools playing football, he said, with only two student-athletes being diagnosed with COVID-19 in Alaska. The lack of outbreaks at schools already participating in football around the country was a key development in the SMC deciding to green-light football in Maine, according to Heinz.

The Sports Medicine Committee also released their guidelines for return to play for each fall sport on Aug. 26. Notable examples included volleyball players will have to wear masks at all times during their contests, which is the only fall sport in Maine held indoors; the sidelines for football teams will be extended to the 10-yard line to promote distancing; and in soccer, slide tackling will be disallowed, and no more than five players from each team can be in the penalty box during a corner kick, not counting the goalie.

If the state agencies agree to the guidelines set forth by the MPA, the final decision of whether or not fall sports will occur will rest with area superintendents and school officials. Several schools have canceled fall sports due to safety concerns ahead of the state’s decision, including Camden Hills, the largest school to cancel to date. “It will be up to each individual school system in Maine to accept the opportunity to field interscholastic teams,” said Stevens. Schedules for teams are still a work in progress, according to Stevens, and localized schedules are being considered.

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