With the days getting shorter and temperatures cooling, the scheduled start of the high school winter sports season is less than a month away.
When and how that season — normally highlighted by the rite of Maine winter, the high school basketball tournament — takes shape is still in the talking stages.
Maine Principals’ Association officials met Friday with representatives of the governor’s office, the state departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Economic and Community Development, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association to discuss interscholastic sports this winter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a very positive conversation,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA’s interscholastic division.
Those efforts remain a work in progress, but the tenor of the conversation appears less tense than it may have been earlier this year when the same groups worked to create a framework for fall sports.
“We hope to work in tandem going out with the guidance on winter sports, recognizing that it was not an ideal situation over the summer [and] that we didn’t quite have everything sync up from the start, although we got there at the end so we are hoping the process will improve,” DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said last week.
The MPA already has pushed back the start of preseason for girls ice hockey, which typically begins two weeks before boys hockey begins practices. Girls hockey was supposed to start Nov. 2.
No new start date has been determined, nor is there any certainty about the scheduled Nov. 16 preseason start date for other MPA winter sports: basketball, boys hockey, cheering, indoor track and field, swimming, skiing and wrestling.
“That’s [the date] on the table. That’s part of the discussion,” Burnham said. “The school leaders, the DOE and the superintendents and the school committees certainly have some feelings about that and we respect that.”
To what degree winter sports will be held likely will depend on the state of the coronavirus and its impact on Maine schools and communities.
That said, the effort to develop a fall sports plan, establish community sports guidelines and reopen schools across the state provides a strong foundation on which to build.
“If you think back to the summer and early fall we were writing the rules as we went along, together with those other groups. We were all doing it, not just us,” Burnham said. “I’m sure they’re going to be revised and issues will be discussed, but that work’s done.”
State community sports guidelines have categorized MPA-sanctioned skiing and most indoor track events as lower-risk activities, while basketball, ice hockey, cheering and team swimming are identified as moderate risk and wrestling is considered higher risk.
This fall, only the lower-risk sports of cross country and golf are allowed to hold state championships while moderate-risk soccer and field hockey are limited to regional competition. Higher-risk tackle football has been replaced by a 7-on-7 touch version of the sport.
Another moderate-risk fall sport, volleyball, which is contested indoors, was limited to outdoor intrasquad workouts. According to the community sports guidelines, indoor sports activities significantly increase exposure to respiratory droplets in the shared air space.
With volleyball not allowed indoors, it raises the question of whether basketball and other sports can be played safely indoors during the winter.
“What remains in place is that the kids are masked all day at school and a lot of schools are using a lot of hybrid models, but there continues to be a concern about what happens during the school days and then some differences in after-school activities,” Burnham said.
The MPA and state agencies involved in laying the groundwork for interscholastic winter sports in Maine are expected to meet again soon.
“We are engaging with those organizations now to get ready for this, recognizing that winter is coming rapidly,” Lambrew said. “We are doing what we have done previously, looking at the evidence, looking at what other states have done, and learning from what we’ve seen in different types of sports leagues to figure out whether the categorization of low, moderate and high risk continues to make sense.”
As for when, or if, the high school basketball tournament might be held, February vacation week is the tradition but these are not traditional times.
“The end of season has not been part of the conversation yet because it depends so much on what happens on the front end,” Burnham said. “The tournament’s pretty far down the list.”