This scene from Jan. 4, which shows Bangor High girls basketball coach Jay Kemble addressing his team, will become much more common around the state this week as schools in Maine's "yellow" counties are allowed to conduct sports activities. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Wednesday’s move by the Maine Principals’ Association and officials at several state agencies to allow schools in “yellow” counties to participate in interscholastic athletics and other school-based activities finally represents an alignment of those programs and private, youth-based entities.

It also should elicit a huge sigh of relief from student-athletes around the state who are fearful that they may be the next to lose their chance to play for their high school teams.

Student-athletes in four southern counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York — had not been able to join the rest of the state in practicing or playing for their high school winter sports since those counties had been coded “yellow” since the start of the preseason in early December. They were prevented from doing so under the state Department of Education’s color-coded health advisory system designed to help school districts determine whether and how to bring students back into the classroom.

Most schools in Maine’s other 12 counties coded “green” have been free to conduct MPA-sanctioned “skills and drills” workouts since Dec. 7 and began formal practices on Jan. 4. Most started winter sports competitions against regionalized opponents last week.

But even that has not been without trepidation. Student-athletes and coaches have waited for the periodic color-coding updates in fear of their county being moved to “yellow.”

Efforts throughout the fall to bring equity to the school- and youth-based programming efforts around the state had been complicated throughout 2020 largely by two issues — language and oversight.

The language within state guidelines largely involved “recommendations,” which left the door ajar for private entities to operate their programs.

Pressure to revise the impact of the color coding on school-based activities increased recently when it became clear youth sports programs could proceed in “yellow” counties, prompting some club efforts in southern Maine to launch winter programs for young athletes whose high school programs had been suspended.

School-based programs, guided not only by the MPA but also officials within each school system, had extra levels of oversight. That led to stricter interpretations of the guidelines and ultimately sent school-based programs in “yellow” counties to the sidelines.

Wednesday’s meeting involved the MPA, the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, the state departments of Health and Human Services and Economic and Community Development, Gov. Janet Mills’ office, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association. It concluded with the decision to limit the color-coding system to an advisory role for in-person learning but no longer apply it to school-based activities.

Now it is left to school officials to determine whether it is safe for teams to begin practicing, following the established sport-specific, return-to-play guidelines. For student-athletes at schools that have not been practicing or playing games, an acclimatization period with duration to be determined at the local level will be required before those teams can begin playing games.

But at least they now will have the chance to play.

Maine’s high school winter sports season remains at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic, but the change in guidelines will allow student-athletes around the state the chance to return to beloved activities to which they have invested much of their time over the years.

The mental stress of not having those opportunities at times throughout the last 10 months likely was an influential factor in Wednesday’s shift.

“We all know the key role that education-based activities play in the physical and emotional well-being of our students,” the MPA said. “We as associations promote any opportunity that we can to find ways to engage kids in these school-based programs, especially when we know that many of them are struggling with their remote learning.

“All these activities play an integral role in the lives of many of our children.”

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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...