Madison Shields (left) of Southern Aroostook is guarded closely by Presque Isle's Jenna Sargent during the March 2021 Aroostook County Championship held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

The Maine Principals’ Association and several other state agencies on Thursday released winter sports guidelines that strongly recommend that masks be worn by all students and staff — whether vaccinated or unvaccinated — in indoor settings for sports, music, performing arts and  other school-based extracurricular activities this winter.

The guidelines also continue to recommend vaccinations and pool testing, similar to language used during the fall sports season when volleyball was the lone indoor activity and mask use was recommended but not mandated.

The updated recommendation leaves the mask-wearing decision as well as other issues related to administering and participating in high school sports to be determined at the local level for the majority of winter sports that are contested indoors, rather than through statewide edict that covered those same sports last winter.

 The “General Recommendations for Winter Activities” released late Thursday afternoon went on to say local school districts and leagues may consider developing guidelines to be followed in numerous areas related to interscholastic sports, including masking during competition and to address schools with different masking policies that are scheduled to face each other.

“We released the guidelines because there were questions about what schools should do,” MPA executive director Mike Burnham said. “In looking at the recommendations that have come from our state health agencies and the state Department of Education, and through working collaboratively with the superintendents’ and school board associations along with the athletic directors and athletic trainers, we thought it was important to continue to put out those guidelines as to what the recommendations are.”

Burnham encouraged people interested in attending indoor high school sporting events this winter to communicate with the local school to learn of its specific policies.

“Schools that they’re competing against should be sharing what any restrictions are within their school or in the venues they’re using with the other school,” he added.

Other issues that may be decided at the local or league level, according to the guidelines, include whether or not to allow spectators at all or have capacity limits, the use of weight rooms and locker rooms, mandatory pool testing, out-of-state competition and middle-level activities.

Masks will continue to be required when students and staff are on school transportation.

The updated guidelines were issued in conjunction with input from the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, the Maine Music Educators Association, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine Athletic Trainers Association.

The MPA and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee also recommended that each school district should have an Emergency Action Plan in place that includes COVID-19 prevention and management strategies that align with federal, state and local guidance, though districts may institute more restrictive measures.

The recommendations also call for physical distancing to be observed during pre-game conferences and post-game handshakes, high fives and fist bumps before, during and after games should be limited.

In addition, schools utilizing outside venues must follow the restrictions put in place by the venue, and outside venues should observe local school-based guidelines that are in place when hosting school events.

The MPA will follow Maine CDC recommendations for its sponsored postseason play, much as it has followed state and federal CDC guidelines since last May when the state retired its community sports guidelines that the MPA had used to govern how the sports it sanctions would be played during the fall 2020 and winter 2020-21 seasons.

“The mission of the MPA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is to provide guidance to the MPA member schools concerning the health and safety of students participating in interscholastic sports and activities,” the statement said. “Team sports and other group extracurricular activities can increase the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission for students, coaches, referees, and staff, especially during indoor and close-contact team sports. We strongly recommend that all schools follow this unified guidance for extracurricular activities.”

The statement notes that the information is frequently changing given the nature of COVID-19.  For the most up-to-date information please refer to the Maine CDC COVID website.

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...