A tentative framework for a high school winter sports season in Maine was announced Friday by state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association.
In addition, participants in all winter sports with the exception of swimming will be required to wear face coverings during competition.
The winter sports schedule and face covering mandate are among the updates made during an alignment of the state’s community sports checklist with the MPA’s school sports guidance.
“We had heard concerns that loopholes are allowing community spread so we are changing a number of our recommendations to requirements in the community sports checklist,” said Maine Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeanne Lambrew during Friday’s Maine CDC press conference.
“This revised checklist also aligns the timing of practice and competition for moderate-risk [community] sports to be the same as that for school-based winter sports like ice hockey and basketball.”
Under the announced schedule, teams in all winter sports except for wrestling may conduct “skills and drills” practices beginning Dec. 7, with more formal preseason practices and intrasquad scrimmages scheduled to start Dec. 14.
A tentative start to competition is set for Jan. 11, 2021. That would be a little more than a month later than during a typical winter and similar to schedules recently announced in New Hampshire and Vermont.
The Dec. 7 and Jan. 11 starting dates allow for time to pass after holidays when people may be travelling or at gatherings that increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.
The Jan. 11 start date for regional competition will be reviewed in early January based upon the status of the public health situation at that time.
Basketball, ice hockey, swimming, cheering and running in events where physical distancing cannot be maintained all are considered moderate-risk sports, while skiing, throwing events such as javelin, shot put, discus, hammer and jumping events such as high jump, pole vault, long jump and triple jump are considered low-risk sports.
The low-risk sports may involve competition between teams from different geographic areas within the state, though a start date for that type of competition matches won’t be determined until January.
Moderate-risk sports teams may compete in regionalized competition as of Jan. 11.
Wrestling is alone among winter sports placed in the high-risk level and faces an uncertain future this winter, MPA interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said.
Wrestlers will be limited to skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with household members as of Dec. 7, with team-based practice involving only physically distanced group activities allowed as of Dec. 14.
All winter sports athletes except for swimmers will be required to wear face coverings while playing in matches. That change from fall sports — when student-athletes were exempted from having to wear face coverings while competing — is in line with Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order on Thursday mandating that Mainers wear face coverings in public no matter their distance from other people.
Included in that order are gymnasiums and other athletic venues.
“Going into the fall we were nervous about it. We had some evidence that when you’re doing strenuous, vigorous exercise there could be some challenge in breathing so we did have that exemption in our executive order and in our guidelines going into the fall,” Lambrew said.
“Other states, other places didn’t adopt that same policy. We consulted with those different states, those different public health officers and the experience from the fall was that those athletes were both able to perform and wear face coverings. There was little resistance to those requirements in those different settings because it was a pathway to play so we are adopting that guidance now, especially given what’s going on in the state of Maine.”
No spectators will be allowed at winter sports competitions, in part because of the state’s 50-person indoor mass-gathering limit.
“We understand how important sports are not just to the players but to the school community,” Maine School Board Association executive director Steven Bailey said. “Face coverings are the new normal and the best strategy for allowing sports to continue and for keeping schools open, along with allowing no spectators within competitions. While disappointing to both fans and players, it is critical to the success of schools remaining the place where spread does not happen.”
Burnham said the new guidelines may allow for volleyball — a moderate-risk sport that was not held this fall without masks because it is played indoors — to have an indoor season during the coming winter or spring.
The MPA will continue to update its guidance for high school winter sports in accordance with the community sports guidelines and will be issuing requirements applicable to its particular sports in the coming weeks, he added.
Other state organizations involved in the development of the aligned sports guidelines included the Department of Education, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Governor’s Office.
“We are pleased to have worked collaboratively with the various stakeholders to provide an opportunity for winter activities to take place in Maine,” Burnham said.
“We understand the importance that these activities are to the health and well-being of our students, their families, and their communities. The alignment with the community sport guidelines gives all groups a chance to work together to provide programs that are meaningful for the young people in our state.”