In this February 2020 file photo, Parker Noyes of Bangor (1) looks to make a play during a Class AA North basketball semifinal against Deering in Portland. The Maine Principals' Association has again delayed the start of team activities for winter sports. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Team-based practices and intrasquad scrimmages for moderate and high-risk interscholastic winter sports in Maine, which were scheduled to begin on Dec. 14, have been pushed back until Jan. 4, 2021, according to the Maine Principals’ Association.

That decision was made in collaboration with state agencies, the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association as the state continues to experience an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and positivity rate.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported 290 new coronavirus cases and four more deaths, one day after Thursday’s report of a single-day record of 349 new cases across the state since the pandemic began.

The state now has experienced more than 200 COVID-19 cases in nine of the last 11 days.

“The rationale is that while we have seen this increase in COVID-19 spread in Maine, we still strive to do everything we can to keep our schools open for in-person learning when it’s safe,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Friday. “Cutting down on the potential spread through sports practices and scrimmages could help us keep our schools open during the critical next few weeks.”

The decision to delay the start of formal winter sports practices still allows for skill-building and conditioning drills to begin as scheduled on Monday. Those activities can take place in counties designated as “green” under the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded COVID-19 school health advisory system.

Four of the state’s 16 counties — Androscoggin, Oxford, Somerset and York — are designated as “yellow,” according to Friday’s latest update.

High schools in those counties may not participate in any team-related activities unless their county achieves “green” status. The only contact allowed between coaches and athletes at schools in the “yellow” counties must be virtual.

Student-athletes participating in the “skills and drills” workouts set to begin Monday will do so with face coverings, physical distancing, no close contact, and in limited numbers when possible.

Those workouts aim to allow student-athletes the opportunity to participate in school sports to a limited extent despite the delay in full team practices and intrasquad competition.

“With the outbreaks and the positive cases that we’ve seen recently, starting full practices when we’ve got this rising positivity rate just didn’t make sense,” MPA interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said.

“But being allowed to do skills and drills allows those athletes and coaches to connect and to do some work on individual skills rather than team-related skills while really focusing on maintaining six feet of distancing and making sure that they’re masked.”

The state has also updated its Guidance for Community Sports Activities to align with the MPA changes.

That document identifies basketball, ice hockey, swimming, cheerleading and running events where physical distance cannot be maintained as moderate-risk activities. Wrestling has been deemed a high-risk sport.

No change was announced regarding the start date for possible regionalized team competition, which remains scheduled to begin on Jan. 11, 2021.

“That will be looked at,” Burnham said. “Obviously that will depend on what happens between now and January 4th and whether we can start practices on January 4th.”

The updated framework provides for only one week of formal practices before any potential game competition against neighboring schools.

“That will be a conversation our sports medicine committee will have as to whether the student-athletes would be fully conditioned with only a week of practice time or whether it should be extended a week,” Burnham said.

“We also understand that there are a number of counties that are still designated yellow and are not able to do anything yet. We’re going to have to look at everything as a whole before we make any kind of a statement about competitive games starting in January.”

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...