ELLSWORTH — It’s now been three months since the last high school sporting event took place in the state of Maine. Three months from now, players, fans and coaches around the state are hoping a new season can provide much-needed cheer and relief to their communities.
In a normal year, such a wait entails a relatively short offseason, a two-week “hands-off” period, two and a half weeks of practice and, then, the first games, matches and meets. Yet the novel coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 anything but a “normal year,” and with efforts being made to limit gatherings and human contact, a return to sports will require a more extensive approach.
The template for that return was laid out Wednesday as the National Federation of High Schools unveiled suggested guidelines for the resumption of high school athletics in the fall. The 16-page document provides a three-phase plan for said resumption and assesses some of the risk factors associated with individual sports and athletics in general in the age of COVID-19.
“Looking through it, the document itself is so detailed that it’s almost overwhelming, but it’s good to have that sort of guidance as we go forward,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said. “Getting back to sports in the fall is something we’d all like to see, and any plan you can put in place is going to be very helpful.”
The first phase of a return to high school sports would require screenings for COVID-19 symptoms, a ban on locker room usage, an adherence to detailed hygiene standards and a 10-person limit on gatherings. Group workouts would be permitted, though said workouts would be limited to “pods” of 5-10 people to limit exposure.
The opening phase would allow the resumption of individual running events, throwing events, individual swimming events, golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, sideline cheer and cross-country, which the NFHS has designated as “lower-risk” activities. In cross-country, where late-season meets often see hundreds to thousands of runners, events would be staggered to limit the number of competitors on trails at a given time.
“I think the lack of equipment and the ability to practice 6 feet apart while running along trails naturally makes cross-country a lower-risk sport,” said Mount Desert Island head cross-country coach Desiree Sirois. “I think we will be open-minded and appreciative to what the new structure will be.”
Phase 2 of the return process would maintain the screening, pod workout and 10-person-gathering provisions from Phase 1 but would permit locker room usage and relax gathering restrictions to 50 people for outdoor events. It also would allow “moderate-risk” activities, basketball, volleyball, baseball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, ice and field hockey, tennis, swim relays, girls’ lacrosse, pole vault, high jump and long jump, to return.
The use of masks, which the NFHS is recommending for athletes in all Phase 1 and Phase 2 events aside from swimming and distance running, could allow volleyball, baseball, softball, gymnastics, tennis and the three moderate-risk track and field events to resume in Phase 1. Some coaches, including Ellsworth head volleyball coach Jamie Calandro, are already preparing for the possibility of a masked environment.
“It’s certainly not ideal since verbal communication and eye contact are such an important part of volleyball, but it can be worked around; I’ve already been formulating different communication styles to account for this,” Calandro said. “This virus is no joke, and my players’ safety is my only concern.”
Phase 3 would lift restrictions on screenings and pod workouts and allow gatherings of up to 50 people for all competitions. The remaining sports, wrestling, football, boys’ lacrosse, competition cheer and dance, would be allowed to resume during this stage of the process.
The resumption of different sports in separate phases could force schools to make the difficult choice of whether to offer limited sporting opportunities or none at all. Although decisions are far from being made, Frost said a scenario could arise in which cross-country and golf are permitted in the fall while football, soccer and volleyball are not.
“We’ve had those conversations in our early communications in the MPA of what we might do if we can provide one sport but not another,” Frost said. “It’s too early to say, but if we’re in school and have a situation where we can have cross-country or golf but not the others, I would rather provide our students with something rather than nothing at all.”
In regards to who might be allowed at sporting events, the NFHS has devised a tier list of “essential,” “preferred” and “nonessential” personnel. The list places athletes, coaches, event staff and medical staff into Tier 1 (essential), media members into Tier 2 (preferred) and spectators and vendors into Tier 3 (non-essential).
Until local and state health departments relax gathering limitations, only Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel will be permitted at sporting events. Depending on where matters stand in the weeks or months ahead, that could mean lost viewing opportunities for parents and community members.
“So many of these games and events are chances for entire communities to get together and bond,” Frost said. “Sports provide great opportunities for kids, but they’re also entertainment for us. People look forward to them.”
The guidelines were issued by the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, which employed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Although the MPA is not required to abide by such guidelines, Executive Director Mike Burnham confirmed to the Portland Press Herald that the governing body would do so.
Any return to high school sports, of course, must also adhere to state and local guidelines on activities and gatherings. There will be risks to any return as long as no known treatment or vaccine exists, but with a plan to minimize those risks in place, a path toward a 2020-21 season is there for those craving to see sports return.
“No matter what level of risk is ultimately determined, I do feel that there will be people who will be happy with the safety standards and some who will feel that not enough precaution is being taken and not participate because of it,” said MDI head track coach Aaron Long. “It’s a tough spot for all of us.”