ELLSWORTH — At long last, the verdict is in.
High school sports will be offered in Maine this fall after the Maine Principals’ Association received approval from state agencies on a framework for a 2020 season, though not all activities have been cleared to return. Golf, cross-country, field hockey and soccer will be offered with football and volleyball set to be moved to early 2021.
The MPA made the announcement Thursday, one day after the governing body met with the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Janet Mills administration to hash out the final parameters for the fall season. The MPA informed member schools of the decision in an email that included guidelines for a return to play for all sports.
The MPA had previously recommended at its Aug. 27 meeting that all sports be offered for the fall season. Yet those plans changed five days later when Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin informed the MPA that the proposal did not meet state guidelines on the return to community sports.
In a joint statement, the commissioners referred to the newly approved guidelines as a “consensus” on a safe return to high school sports. Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Director Eileen King added that the guidelines were successful in balancing the resumption of athletics with educators’ efforts to resume in-class instruction.
“As an extension of our educational programming, it is important both cocurricular and extracurricular activities are offered in a manner that is safe and consistent with the DHHS-approved community sports guidelines,” King said. “These activities, if offered under these guidelines, will help to promote the safety of all participants as well as the safety of the sponsoring schools.”
Golf and cross-country, the two “low-risk” activities under the state’s guidelines on community sports, have been approved on a statewide basis. Field hockey and soccer, which are designated as “moderate-risk” sports, may return on a regional basis only. Soccer teams will not participate in postseason play this fall.
In lieu of traditional football, schools may offer 7-on-7 touch or flag football as well as Ironman or punt-pass-and-kick competitions. MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said the governing body will look to offer the sport “in the late winter [or] early spring,” though concerns remain regarding potential conflicts with other sports and the feasibility of playing an outdoor sport in the state’s colder, wetter months.
The decision regarding football was deeply unpopular among high school players and parents. Sandy Irish and Melissa Poland, mothers of players at Edward Little High School in Auburn, urged those from across the state to join in a protest that was held Saturday morning on Longley Bridge.
“The state’s COVID-19 infection rate is one of the lowest in the country, yet other contact sports are being allowed to play this fall,” Irish and Poland wrote in a statement inviting others to turn out for the protest. “We won’t stop, and we can’t stop until our voices are heard and reconsiderations are made this fall to play all fall sports.”
Despite nixing indoor volleyball, the MPA gave schools the clearance to play the sport outdoors if they can do so safely. Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow expressed optimism in the MPA’s ability to provide a workable environment for a traditional indoor season early next year.
“We have three courts right now that we can use for outdoor volleyball, so we can do something there,” Dow told The Ellsworth American. “For indoor, if you put it between the winter and spring seasons, the only thing you’re really competing against is fine arts. I think that’s something that could work out, and it’s good for our volleyball program.”
The MDI Regional School System and Ellsworth School Department approved fall seasons at their respective board meetings Thursday and Friday. Dow and Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost had recommended prior to the MPA’s announcement that their boards adopt whatever proposal was approved by the governing body.
In late August, Consolidated School District 13 (Deer Isle-Stonington) announced it would not be holding soccer this fall and instead offer only golf and cross-country. Yet the CSD 13 Board reversed that decision Monday, one day after Superintendent Christian Elkington recommended the district offer the sport at the high school level.
“We will do our best to schedule 8-10 games,” Elkington said in a memo to board members. “We hope to learn from our experiences with varsity soccer and what other schools find and work through this fall to better inform how we will, potentially, handle a future winter sports season.”
The administrative response to the MPA announcement was much different in Sullivan, where the Regional School Unit 24 Board of Directors voted Monday to uphold its earlier decision canceling the fall season. The 6-3 vote means Sumner Memorial High School and the district’s four K-8 schools will not take part in athletics this fall.
Games and meets this season will be limited to attendances of 100 people in accordance with Governor Mills’ executive order limiting gathering sizes. Players, coaches, volunteers, officials, trainers, media members and spectators will all count toward the 100-person limit.
“I think a lot of schools are still not sure what they’re going to do about fans,” Dow said. “We’d like to have them, but if we can’t, we might be looking at live-streaming the events. It’s important for those people who might not be able to be there that they still have a way to watch.”
Schools in counties that have been assigned “yellow” or “red” designations under the Maine Department of Education’s guidelines on a return to classroom learning may not hold practices or games. With the exception of York County (yellow), all counties in Maine are currently designated as “green.”
For teams participating in approved sports, the season is scheduled to begin with tryouts and the first practices Monday, Sept. 14. The first countable games and meets may be held as early as the following Friday, Sept. 25.
Update: This story has been updated to include announcements made by local school boards and comments from local administrators.