Mills administration to give final say if fall sports can be played

UPDATED WITH GUIDELINES: Maine Principals’ Association leadership approves of fall sports season

Sun, 08/30/2020 - 11:45am

AUGUSTA — After much anticipation, the MPA Interscholastic Management Committee, a committee including superintendents and principals from around the state, voted unanimously Thursday, Aug. 27 in favor of the fall sports season to move forward. 

Fall sports in the Midcoast include cross country, golf, football, field hockey and soccer. Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport also sponsors a mountain biking team. 

A week before the decision, MPA Executive Director of Interscholastic Division Michael Burnham noted, in a statement, the organization was being presented with an “unprecedented situation with the COVID-19 virus.” 

Though the MPA and two of its committees have backed a fall sports season, the Mills administration will review the guidelines before the decision to play fall sports is considered to be fully approved, according to Burnham, and be able to provide any input they wish to provide. 

“This is a working document we will want to work closely with State agencies,” said Burnham. 

Leaders of the Maine Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, and Maine CDC have previously said its agencies would leave decisions regarding whether the fall sports season should be played in the hands of the MPA. The Office of Governor Janet Mills has deflected on its stance, referring inquiries on the subject of fall sports to the aforementioned government agencies. 

Throughout the month of August, there has been much debate on whether the MPA should follow guidelines established by the Maine Department of Education for physical education classes or guidelines established by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development for community gatherings.

On top of the debate about what guidelines the MPA should be following for sports, there has been debate about if all fall sports should be played with some sports, especially football, being considered more high-risk for possible COVID-19 transmission.

The MPA, including the MPA Sports Medicine Committee and individual sport committees, worked cooperatively with the Maine Department of Education, the Governor’s Office, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Economic Community Development and the Maine CDC to determine appropriate health guidelines. The National Federation of State High School Associations, the national governing body for high school athletics, also provided support and guidance. 

During a Wednesday meeting, the MPA Sports Medicine Committee recommended all fall sports be played with added safety guidelines adopted. 

Members of the Sports Medicine Committee include Molly Bishop of Oceanside High School, Tim Smith of Foxcroft Academy, Reg Ruhlin of Orono High School, Gordie Salls of Sanford High School and John Keane of Piscataquis Community Secondary. Liaisons include Chris Sementelli of Maine General Sports Medicine, Chris Lutrzykowski of Maine General Medicine Center, Dr. William Heinz of Sports Medicine Center, John Ryan of South Portland School District, Emily Poland of Maine Department of Education and Dan O'Connell of John Bapst Memorial High School.

The committee approved a set of safety guidelines presented to the panel by each of the individual committees for each fall sport. 

The committee also provided recommendations on what risk level for potential COVID-19 transmission each fall sport should be classified as, which, in some states, has determined when certain sports could start playing. 

The committee recommended classifying golf and cross country as low-risk, soccer and field hockey as moderate-risk and football as high-risk. 

All coaches will be required to take an online course about COVID-19 including how to identify the symptoms of COVID-19, and referees will be encouraged to take the course as well. 

Members of the Interscholastic Management Committee include Steve Bell of Dexter Regional High School, Don Gray of Greely High School, Jon Porter of Southern Aroostook High School, Paul Theriault of Shead High School, Jeremie Sirois of Kennebunk High School, Bill Tracy of Hampden Academy, Travis Barnes of Caribou Community School, Scott Gordon of Old Town High School and Rick Amero of Monmouth Academy. Liaisons include Kevin Jordan of MSAA, Bunky Dow of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and Gerry Durgin of Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

Though fall sports has been given the go-ahead to push forward across the state, some schools or certain teams at schools may, ultimately, opt to sit out during the upcoming season. 

Last week, Camden Hills became the first, and so far only, high school in the state to opt out of the upcoming fall sports season in favor of participating in practices and modified games this fall.

Fall sports at Camden Hills includes mountain biking, golf, football, cross country, field hockey and soccer.  

A joint letter issued Aug. 21 from Five Town CSD Superintendent Maria Libby, CHRHS Principal Shawn Carlson and CHRHS Athletic Director Jeff Hart noted the administration reached a point where it could no longer wait for a decision from state officials. 

“We feel the path forward is very clear and apparent,” the joint letter stated. “We have come to the disappointing conclusion that there is no way to adequately minimize the risks of mixing our student population with other school populations in thinking about league competition.” 

The joint letter stated the top priority for the Camden Hills community must be taking actions to “maintain the health of our student community in order to keep our buildings open for in-person learning for as long as possible.” 

“I want everyone to know that the decision was made by people who care deeply about this community and the students and their families who are impacted by this the most,” Hart said in a separate letter, while also noting it is okay to mourn the loss of fall sports for now while he works to develop a modified and nontraditional fall sports season. 

Teams, such as Camden Hills, opting out of the fall sports season will not be penalized for the decision by the MPA. 

Schools will not be penalized if they cannot, or do not, field a team in a sport they normally would. The rule mandating teams dropping a sport remain out of competition for two seasons is being waived by the MPA. 

Modified fall season

At the end of July, the MPA announced its plans for shortened fall sports seasons, including a reduction of maximum games played in many fall sports. 

The maximum number of regular season games for soccer and field hockey have been reduced to 10 games, from an original slate of 14. There is no minimum amount of games a team most complete this season.

Schools with football programs will have seven weeks to complete a maximum of six regular season games. Football programs traditionally play an eight game slate.

The cross country and golf maximum number of contests have not been revised.

The MPA has urged its member schools to adopt schedules with an emphasis on regional scheduling to reduce the amount of travel across the state.

Fall sports at the high school level across the state were scheduled to start Aug. 17, though the MPA Interscholastic Management Committee voted in July to push the start of Maine’s fall high school sports season back.

With that vote, the fall season will begin Tuesday, Sept. 8 with practices and preseason contests. The regular season will start Friday, Sept. 18.

Schools will be allowed to alter their schedules after the season begins, if needed, if opponents are impacted by the pandemic.

Sample Guidelines 

The following is a sample of guidelines discussed Aug. 26 and Aug. 27. It is not a comprehensive list; rather, the list is meant to demonstrate some of the highlights of new guidelines for each sport. To view the complete guidelines, view the attached PDF file. 

Golf (Low risk)
Putt with pin in hole
Don’t rake out sand traps
No motorized carts

Cross Country (Low risk)
Changes include increase courses
Six feet in narrowest points 
Wearing masks when not competing
Take masks off at starting line
Masks on hand or arm so it is available for when they finish
Finish line expanded to allow for more room
Encourage runners to head directly to their team tent when they finish
Collapsing at finish line is frowned upon

Field Hockey (Moderate risk)
One substitute per team at either end of scorer’s table to keep six feet apart
Penalty area will see players take a knee rather than sit in a chair
More time between periods so athletes get own water bottle
Mouth guards remain in as much as possible
Sanitize hands if interacting with mouth guards
Players and coaches on sidelines wear face masks

Soccer (Moderate risk) 
Five players per team in the box in addition to goalie
Mouth guards remain in as much as possible
Sanitize hands if interacting with mouth guards
Add an officials timeout at 20 minute mark of each half to hydrate and sanitize hands
No slide tackling if another player is within six feet, only if ball is going out of bounds
Players and coaches on sidelines wear face masks

Football (High risk) 
Expanding sidelines to 10 yard line so players can distance
More time during timeouts so players get own bottle of water
Mouth guards remain in as much as possible
Sanitize hands if interacting with mouth guards
Three to four balls to be rotated throughout the game and sanitized when not in play 
Keep helmet on while on the sideline