In this Oct. 30, 2019, file photo, Belfast's Halie Lindelof (left) and Winslow's Savannah Joler battle for the ball in first half action of the Class B North field hockey championship game at Hampden Academy. Credit: BDN file photo

The Maine Principals’ Association Interscholastic Management Committee voted unanimously late Thursday afternoon to proceed with interscholastic fall sports this year.

The vote was taken shortly after a 1-hour, 14-minute executive session when the 12-member panel discussed recommended guidelines for cross country, field hockey, football, golf, soccer and volleyball as endorsed a day earlier by the MPA Sports Medicine Committee.

“Please understand that this is a working document. This is a framework for what we feel is a safe return to these activities,” MPA interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said.

The fall sports season is not a done deal.

Several state government agencies, including the governor’s office, state Department of Health and Human Services and state Department of Economic and Community Development, are expected to review the latest recommendations at the MPA’s request.

“I will say ultimately, at the end of the day, should we find that there are school sports that are happening that are unsafe either because they’re out of compliance with guidance or if there’s problems with guidance, we will review because it is our job to help work with the Maine Principals’ Association to keep people safe,” DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambreau said during Thursday’s CDC press conference.

Burnham said he has communicated with Lambreau and added he is cautiously optimistic about receiving timely feedback, given that practices are scheduled to start in early September.

“I think the first thing they’re going to look for is to make sure that our recommendations align with any state-mandated rules that have been put into place and that we’re not in violation of anything that has been put out by the governor’s office or DHHS,” Burnham said. “The last thing we would want to do is be in violation of any of those rules or policies.”

Each school system also must determine if it will participate in interscholastic fall sports this year or opt out. At least three schools — Camden Hills of Rockport, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone and Deer Isle-Stonington — already have decided not to field fall sports teams this fall.

“I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t recognize that there are other entities that are out there, whether they’re at the local level or whether it’s at the state level, that may not feel that we’ve made the right decision,” Burnham said, “but I’m very comfortable in saying we made the best decision that we felt we could keeping the health and safety and the social and emotional well-being of the students in mind.

“We have made a decision.”

Under the current schedule, the first allowable date for all fall sports tryouts except football would be Sept. 1 for many Aroostook County schools and Sept. 8 for all other schools. The first countable games could then be played no earlier than Sept. 11 for the early starting County schools and no sooner than Sept. 18 elsewhere.

“We have heard from some districts that they are looking at postponing that start date, and that local decision would be supported by our office and all of our sport committees,” Burnham said.

Formal football practices also are scheduled to start Sept. 8, with a three-week preseason leading up to the start Sept. 25-26 of an anticipated six-game regular season.

“Football now goes back to a three-week preseason to give us a little bit more time, basically five weeks, to look at what’s going on with football across the country and to make sure that it remains safe,” Burnham said.

The Interscholastic Management Committee voted on a report that included a host of guidelines for each fall sport designed to address COVID-19 concerns.

Much of the conversation continued to focus on football.

Dr. William Heinz, chairman of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, said that among the seven states that already have started their 2020 season, just one case of community transmission between teams had been reported among approximately 1,000 games that already have been played. That came in Alaska.

“To me that indicates that overall football may not be as risky as we think it is, and that’s why I suggested to the Sports Medicine Committee that we give football the go-ahead and let them start preseason,” he said.

Heinz added that the continuation of football is contingent on how the sport may be impacted by the coronavirus during the coming weeks.

“With the other sports I look at it as we’ve given them a green light,” Heinz said of the sports medicine panel’s recommendation. “With football, I look at it as we’ve given them a blinking yellow light, and if anything happens throughout the country or within the state of Maine as far as increased transmission, then we’re going to pull that recommendation and have them change to another activity.”

Among the new guidelines, students who play volleyball — the only sport played indoors during the fall — will be required to wear face coverings during competition. Other athletes will wear face coverings in virtually all other situations surrounding their games, as will coaches.

Game officials will have the option to wear face coverings.

In soccer, slide tackling will be eliminated when an opponent is less than six feet away, and teams will be limited to five offensive or defensive players — plus the goalie — in the penalty box on corner kicks or throw-ins to that area.

Most of the other changes involve addressing mass-gathering limits or social distancing, such as widening the course and finish-line areas at cross country courses.

“I think at the end of the day you’ve got to trust the data, you’ve got to trust the medical experts,” said Dexter Regional High School principal Steve Bell, chair of the Interscholastic Management Committee. “The key word is trust. We’re trusting those medical experts, We’re trusting those committees and their due diligence. We’re supporting the work that went on behind the scenes.

“At the end of the day it’s about trying to find opportunities for kids, giving kids opportunities but also being safe.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...