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Skowhegan High School field hockey coach Paula Doughty applauds Maine Principals’ Association executive director Mike Burnham and the organization for its proactive approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MPA Interscholastic Management Committee recently issued a memo outlining revisions to its policy in the upcoming months. They include pushing back the start of summer coach-athlete interactions and eliminating the normal August hands-off period.
The MPA also instituted a contact period for remote workouts and instruction and temporarily suspended its minimum academic requirements.
“I was really impressed with what they did,” said Doughty, a Maine Sports Hall of Famer who has led Skowhegan to 16 Class A state championships over the last 19 seasons.
“They could have sat on their hands until July. They didn’t. They had the foresight to say June is out [for high school summer sports programs]. I’m tickled pink.”
With social distancing guidelines in place across the country to try to reduce the number of coronavirus cases, summer programs are in serious jeopardy — if they haven’t been canceled already.
One of the major changes involves the elimination of the mandatory two-week “hands-off” period that prevents coaches from interacting with their players for the first two weeks of August.
Burnham said the two weeks in August could be critical to the proper conditioning of athletes as they prepare for the fall season. Now they will be able to do so under the supervision of their coaches.
“This will give kids a couple of weeks to recondition so we won’t see overuse injuries at the beginning of the season,” Burnham said.
“They should have done that years ago,” veteran Bucksport High School football coach Joel Sankey said.
With the exception of Aroostook County — where Class C and D schools start their preseason in late July and begin playing games in mid-to-late August because of the two-week potato harvest break — preseason workouts for the state’s other schools begin in mid-August.
Eric Werntgen, the athletic director at Fort Kent High School, said he doesn’t foresee any schedule changes for County schools as a result of the MPA moves.
The MPA also has paved the way for coaches to connect virtually with their athletes from June 14-July 5, including implementing sports-specific workouts.
Burnham said the MPA will follow the directives of Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Education to ensure the safety of the athletes, coaches, trainers and other school personnel.
Summer high school sports programs that usually start in late June won’t begin until July 6. At that time, coaches will be allowed to provide in-person instruction to their players.
“It makes sense to wait until July to take the pressure off the families and the kids,” Brewer High School athletic administrator Dave Utterback said. “Having a shorter summer season is better than nothing.”
Doughty said she won’t be able to host her philanthropic high school field hockey tournaments this summer. Her annual Battle for Breast Cancer has raised more than $200,000 in nine years for the Martha B. Webber Breast Care Center at the Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.
She believes the MPA rules changes give health officials a better chance to evaluate the progress that has been made in dealing with COVID-19. And the fundraising will continue.
“Our kids are going to do fundraising online for the hospital and they’re pretty excited about it,” Doughty said.
The MPA has temporarily suspended its academic eligibility guidelines, which required an athlete to pass four full-time courses or learning experiences, and left that decision in the hands of schools.
Burnham said every school has its own educational blueprint and grading system and the remote learning regimens put in place in March have created other challenges in grading students.
The MPA Sports Medicine Committee has recommended allowing established athletes to forego a physical exam, as long as they don’t have any pre-existing conditions. They must complete a comprehensive health questionnaire that is used between physicals.
First-time participants would have to undergo a physical.
Burnham said the rationale behind that recommendation is that it could be difficult for student-athletes to see their physicians because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Also, coaches with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification can get recertified online rather than having to attend an in-person training session. Coaches who aren’t already certified must take the hands-on course.
Burnham said changes are frequent in dealing with COVID-19 and the MPA is ready to adapt.
For coaches and athletic administrators, there are still many more questions than answers.
Sankey wonders if the school’s weight room will eventually be opened up for a limited number of players at a time.
Presque Isle High School girls soccer coach Ralph Michaud noted that 10 of the Wildcats’ 14 games are against teams from Penobscot and Hancock counties. He is concerned about whether PI will be able to play teams from areas that have many more cases of COVID-19.
Werntgen said the Class C and D soccer state championship games are scheduled in Presque Isle this season and is curious about those logistics.
“I’m not worried about November right now,” Burnham said.
Watch: What will it take for COVID-19 to go away?