In this 2017 photo, Husson University women's basketball coach Kissy Walker calls out a play during a recent game at Newman Gym in Bangor. The NCAA has granted Division III athletes a waiver that will provide them for an extra year of eligibility because of disruptions to competition caused by the the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NCAA announced Thursday that Division III athletes will not be charged a year of eligibility this academic year, even if they compete for their schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already led to the cancellation of fall sports at almost all Maine colleges. The New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes Maine schools Bowdoin, Colby and Bates, has already called off winter sports.

For schools that are still planning to play this winter, the schedule will start later than usual and there will be fewer games with a much more regionalized format to reduce travel.

Husson University women’s basketball coach Kissy Walker said giving the student-athletes a blanket waiver was definitely the right thing to do.

“I would never tell a [graduating senior] to come back just for the basketball piece of it. But this would give them a chance to return to pursue a master’s degree and to have a full career,” Walker said.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew last week emphasized that the college and professional teams can implement COVID-19 standards established by the NCAA and their respective leagues, rather than use state guidelines.

The NCAA Division III Presidents Council approved the waiver for Division III athletes based on a recommendation from the Division III Management Council.

“[It will allow] student-athletes to compete up to the established dates of competition/contest maximums without being charged a season of intercollegiate participation or a term of attendance for any term during the 2020-21 academic year in which they are eligible for competition,” the NCAA said.

“We continue to see the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our student-athletes and membership and the Presidents Council unanimously concluded this recommendation was appropriate,” said Tori Murden McClure, the chair of the Presidents Council.

Thursday’s decision supersedes the NCAA policy set last summer that would have preserved a season of eligibility for Division III athletes only if their school played 50 percent or less of the maximum number of games they were allowed to play.

Walker said that with the spike in coronavirus cases and the uncertainty of having a winter season, student-athletes will have peace of mind knowing they can return next year.

Several Husson players are in five or six-year programs such as physical therapy and occupational therapy and planned to return anyway. Now they will be able to play during 2021-2022.

Unlike in Division I, athletes in Division III are not eligible for athletic scholarships.

Division III coaches could still find themselves with too many athletes on their rosters if several student-athletes who were expected to graduate opt to return.

“We are recruiting a girl now who was set to go to another school but they told her they didn’t have a roster spot for her because several [seniors] are returning next year,” Walker said.

Since Division III athletes pay their own way through school, some may decide they can’t afford to pay for an extra year, especially if they have already graduated.

Walker said some could stay home, take classes online and not play this season in order to save money to return next year when there may be more of a full season.