Maine school superintendents are playing the same waiting game as the rest of the high school community this week as work continues on Maine Principals’ Association recommendations for staging interscholastic fall sports.
The state’s departments of Education and Health and Human Services responded on Tuesday to the MPA’s “Return to Competition for Competitive Athletics and Activities in Maine” with a four-page letter that urged the state’s governing body for high school sports to further delay its scheduled start to the fall sports season while modifications are made to its return-to-play policy.
The MPA last week approved recommendations to proceed with all of its fall sports — cross country, football, field hockey, golf, soccer and volleyball — this year with enhanced safety measures added in an effort to conduct practices and competition more safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once the state and MPA agree on safety-related guidance, final return-to-play decisions are expected to rest with local superintendents and school boards.
“I think we are in a holding pattern,” said Gregg Palmer, superintendent of the Brewer School Department. “We have some information based on the MPA’s work, but we don’t have all the information.”
Bangor Superintendent of Schools Betsy Webb anticipates taking a detailed look at the final recommendations on the local level, in part to identify any lingering questions that may need to be addressed.
“For me it’s going to be watching what the state says, then putting a planning committee together with a lot of experts to help us, and then really going line by line, piece by piece, document by document — just like we did with the [school] reopening plan — to determine what’s doable and what would the recommendation be to the school committee,” she said.
Webb said it’s more about keeping the athletes, coaches, staff and others safe than the details of how sports might be played.
Palmer visualizes the issue as a triangle, with physical safety at the top, social and emotional wellness at one side point and learning at the other side point.
“In the old world before COVID those three things worked together to support one another,” he said. “Kids that are physically safe can engage in all sorts of activities to increase their social and emotional wellness and all of that helps facilitate the learning process.
“In the COVID world those three things are pitted against each other and I think we’re trying to figure out what the right balance is with each and every decision we make.”
As of Tuesday, preseason tryouts for fall sports were scheduled to begin Sept. 8 in most of the state, with the first countable games no earlier than Sept. 18 for all fall sports except football. Regular-season games in that sport could be held no earlier than Sept. 25-26, according to the MPA schedule.
The state has recommended the MPA push those dates back.
Webb said the timing of last week’s MPA announcement created a time crunch with schools already opening.
“Then on top of that the state has to reassess the color code for our county on Friday,” Webb said. “Nothing is lining up easily, and that just makes it more complicated.”
While all of Maine’s counties have gotten the green light to reopen schools for in-person instruction since the DOE introduced its green-yellow-red advisory system on July 31, the state plans to reassess that standing in Penobscot and York counties this week.
Those counties have been affected the most by the state’s most widespread COVID-19 outbreak to date stemming from an Aug. 7 wedding and reception in the Millinocket area.
How any change of status for Penobscot County might impact the immediate future of fall high school sports in the area remains to be seen.
“The possible changes in coding for color certainly adds new thinking into everything, your return-to-school model, this conversation,” Palmer said. “The coding is there for a purpose and a reason and we take it seriously, but what comes along with that?
“I think we’ll just have to wait and see, but that information is coming this Friday and we’ll certainly be paying attention to it.”
Palmer said discussions about fall high school sports may vary considerably by community.
“I think some districts are up against it,” he said. “We’re in a situation in Brewer where we have a very strong athletic director [Dave Utterback]; we have very strong resources just on the human level.
“I think there are districts where one or two people are doing everything. They’re working 48 hours a day to try to get school open period, much less how to adjust an athletic schedule or to make sure all the parameters that might be in place are being followed.”
While the discussions may vary, Webb believes everyone with a stake in the resumption of the educational process — either in the classroom or on the field of play — is challenged by the unique set of facts they face.
“The pandemic has been hard on everyone, right?” she said. “We’re human beings. We’re socially curious people, we like to socialize and you have to consider mental health. For me, when I can’t exercise each day I feel that and I think our student-athletes feel that, too.
Webb said the emphasis is on how to keep people safe.
“I think we have to consider what’s doable. What can we handle? What can our resources handle? That has to be part of it, for sure,” she said.