Biddeford’s Tiger Gymnasium awaits the anticipated start of the fall sports season on Sept. 14. Local school officials are preparing their coaches and staff for updated guidelines from state agencies on the return to play for fall athletics. Courtesy Photo/Josh Pulsifer

BIDDEFORD — A decision on the fate of fall sports in Maine is likely to be decided this week, in a move that has parents, student-athletes, and school personnel anxiously waiting to hear the state’s determination. For York County schools, however, the state’s reclassification of the county as “Yellow”, or a hybrid learning model, may leave the status of sports in further doubt.

On Sept. 4, the Maine Department of Education reclassified York County from a Green status to Yellow, in part due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases associated with a recent wedding in Millinocket, and evidence of community transmission of the virus, according to the Maine CDC.

For schools across southern Maine, the Yellow status darkened the cloud of doubt on the upcoming sports season.

“I think we need to wait and see what guidance comes out, now that the ball is back with the MPA and the other agencies before we can make that decision,” said Jeremy Ray, the superintendent of Biddeford schools. Ray, like other superintendents and district leaders, must grapple with having a successful start of the academic year, while also attempting to provide extracurriculars within safety guidelines that will be updated by state agencies this week, in consultation with the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees athletics in Maine high schools.

For coaches in York and Cumberland counties, it has been a difficult summer. Superintendents in both counties agreed to suspend all in-person workouts at schools, beginning on July 6. The summer is typically a time when athletes can work out in school gyms, participate in summer leagues, and have an opportunity to prepare for the upcoming fall season with their teammates and coaches. The other 14 counties in Maine were permitted to participate in summer conditioning and activities by their superintendents.

The loss of the last two-plus months of conditioning will be hard to overcome for teams, according to Kevin Kezal, head coach of Thornton Academy’s football program. The Trojans, who have won four Class A state championships in the past eight seasons, will have to prepare for a season unlike any other, if football is given the go-ahead to start.

“It’s been hard because we haven’t seen any of our players since March,” said Kezal. “The MPA did a really nice job of setting up guidelines for workouts to begin on July 6. Unfortunately, our superintendents decided they weren’t going to let us start then. I wish we would have had the opportunity to work with our athletes, get those guidelines in place, and teach them the right way to do things.”

With football the only sport rated as “high-risk” by the state’s community sports guidelines, much attention has been focused on it. However, the status of all fall sports remains in limbo until state agencies determine the path forward, which is expected mid-week.

Volleyball has the unique distinction of being the only fall sport played indoors, and has been rated a “moderate risk” sport in the community sports guidelines. If volleyball were to be played this fall, student-athletes and coaches would have to wear face masks at all times. It is currently the only sport that has the potential to have face masks be required at all times. Other sports have  specifications on when student-athletes should wear masks, such as on the sidelines.

Despite the challenges facing fall sports, a group of parents, student-athletes, coaches, and fans have come together online to share their passion for playing sports. A Facebook group, called “#LetThemPlay Fall Sports in Maine,” has garnered over 10,000 group members in less than a month. The purpose of the group is to promote the safe playing of high school athletics in Maine, with an emphasis on fall sports, for now. The group, run by a collection of 15 concerned parents from southern Maine, held a rally in Augusta on Sept. 7 to bring awareness to their cause. Over 200 people gather to show their support for student-athletes in Maine, lining the streets of Augusta while respecting social distancing. The rally brought awareness to the front steps of state agencies, which will make their anticipated final call on the fate of fall sports this week.

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