In this November 2019 file photo, Maine Central Institute's Harrison Sites (center) sacks Leavitt quarterback Michael Hathaway in the first half of the Class C football state championship game at Alfond Stadium in Orono. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education on Tuesday recommended the Maine Principals’ Association delay its proposed starting date for fall high school sports to address numerous concerns about the organization’s proposal for a return to play.

In a four-page letter to Maine Principals’ Association interscholastic division executive director Mike Burnham, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and DOE Commissioner Pender Makin addressed issues with the MPA fall sports guidelines released last week.

“Our review found that several elements in the MPA Guidance do not comport with the State of Maine rules,” the commissioners said.

Burnham on Tuesday afternoon said MPA officials are in the process of reviewing the state’s letter.

The MPA had on Aug. 27 forwarded its proposal for a return to sports for a review by state agencies. That came only hours before voting to move forward with the fall season.

The commissioners said the MPA must significantly alter its plans to conform with Maine’s guidance for combating the COVID-19 pandemic if interscholastic sports are to be held this fall in Maine.

Among their observations, Lambrew and Makin noted the MPA’s guidance suggests spectators at events should be 3-6 feet apart, but fewer than 6 feet of spacing is prohibited for spectators according to the Department of Economic and Community Development’s community sports guidelines. MPA rules for face coverings also drew scrutiny as being not fully consistent with state mandates for use during low to moderate intensity exercises, in bench areas and during coaching strategy sessions.

The letter further cited the lack of a formal connection between the MPA’s return-to-play recommendations and the plans developed by individual school districts in order to return students to classes this fall.

“The MPA Guidance is silent on the interaction with schools’ plans, despite these activities occurring on school grounds, using school services and supervised by school staff,” the letter said.

The MPA previously said that if and when its guidelines are approved, it will be up to school districts to determine whether they wish to offer sports.

The letter did not suggest fall sports in Maine are a lost cause, but hinted playing safely under state guidelines might require some extreme measures.

“It is important to note that the State’s guidance related to physical activity does not indicate that sports must be canceled outright; rather, it has offered safe ways for participation,” the letter said.

That might require following the lead of some professional sports, including the ability to conduct frequent team testing and house athletes separately to protect other students, school staff and their families.

“Without that, such a return poses a risk of spreading COVID-19 across the state, within schools and to vulnerable people within communities,” the letter read.

The MPA schedule calls for fall sports tryouts to begin Sept. 8 in most of Maine, with the first countable games no earlier than Sept. 18 for all sports except football. Regular-season football contests may be held no earlier than Sept. 25.

The MPA was questioned for failing to make modifications based on risk, allowing student-athletes in even the highest-risk sports such as football to play largely as they did pre-COVID. The commissioners said competition between teams locally, regionally or statewide, regardless of the color classification of counties in the state’s School Health Advisory System, do not meet community sports guidelines.

Those rules do not allow competitions other than intrasquad scrimmages for high-risk sports and the letter said travel combined with close contact in certain sports increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“This is why colleges and universities in New England have largely canceled intercollegiate athletic competition this fall,” the letter read.

The commissioners referred to concerns raised by the Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Committee and the Maine School Boards Association Board of Directors in asking for the MPA to outline plans for modifying its proposal. They urged the MPA to delay its starting date for sports to give it sufficient time to resolve the concerns expressed and to allow for enough time to implement the updated guidelines.

“This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing schools the opportunity to get their academic programs under way, which many school administrators, teachers and communities will likely appreciate,” they said.

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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...