The challenges, to be sure, are significant. But there are encouraging signs for the return of high school sports in Maine despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Maine has avoided the surge in COVID-19 cases currently sweeping the South and Southwest. Hospitalizations across the state are low, and Maine has the lowest estimated virus reproduction rate in the country. Some parts of the state outside the more populated Cumberland and York counties have seen few positive cases.
On Friday, the Maine Department of Education outlined a plan that it hopes can get students and teachers back to school – or, in some cases, result in a hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning. And, the Maine Principals’ Association said Friday it’s still planning for high school sports this fall, even in the wake of the University of Maine and other colleges in the state shutting down their athletic programs.
The MPA, which governs the state’s interscholastic activities, has introduced the early stages of a four-phase plan for resuming sports, beginning with in-person conditioning workouts in small groups in July. But details for the third and fourth phases still have to be formulated. The DOE’s county-by-county plan for reopening schools adds another layer of complexity to revamping what was always going to be an abnormal, at best, season this fall.
Based on interviews with educators and officials in Maine and other parts of the nation, and by looking at how other states are approaching the restart of high school sports, here are seven ways the impact of the pandemic is likely to be felt once interscholastic sports resume:
1. Administrators must prepare for COVID-19 infections.
Based on the Maine DOE’s red-yellow-green COVID risk assessment plan, if a county is designated “red,” then schools will be operating completely remotely. MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said Friday that would mean no sports at all in those counties.
Regardless of the number of schools able to participate in high school sports this fall, there are likely to be disruptions because of COVID-19 infections. That’s already happened in one state.
Iowa plays high school baseball and softball during the summer, and opted to do so again this year with a delayed start. At least 25 baseball teams and 20 softball teams – roughly 7 percent of all teams – have had to cancel games because of players or coaches testing positive. As of Friday, 10 softball and 12 baseball teams had ended their season prematurely because of COVID cases, several of which were reported in the final week of the regular season. The state playoffs start this weekend.
“More and more schools are dropping out. The top-ranked (baseball) team in the state had to shut down this past week,” said Scott Garvis, the athletic director at Ankeny Centennial High. Garvis has been communicating with athletic directors and coaches in Maine throughout the summer via a series of Zoom meetings set up by Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens, called the Pandemic Project.
“I always tell my coaches, we are one person, one case, away from being shut down,” Garvis said.
Maine, with a population of 1.3 million, is seeing a much lower incidence rate of new cases (a seven-day average of 18 per day) compared to Iowa (seven-day average of 419 new cases per day as of July 14 in a state of 3.15 million). So perhaps team-wide quarantines will be rare in Maine. To think it won’t happen at all is unrealistic, however.
When one case happens, be it in an academic or athletic setting, closures and quarantining will take place, said Yarmouth Schools Superintendent Andrew Dolloff in the Pandemic Project’s most recent conference call on Monday.
“I’m still waiting to see specific guidance, but I’m anticipating that if a person tests positive, it will mean a closing down of at least a school, or a district, for a specified amount of time – I’m hearing from two to five days – and the quarantining of those students,” Dolloff said.
2. Even with a green light, the season could be shorter.
On Thursday, New York state’s high school association announced it will delay the start of fall sports until Sept. 21, and also canceled regional and state championships. Vermont is also planning a later start. The MPA’s Burnham said Friday a later start is a possibility in Maine.
Even though the MPA approved in-person, conditioning-focused activities between coaches and players starting on July 6, school superintendents in southern Maine and several other areas of the state are not allowing those interactions before Aug. 3.
The MPA, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and athletic directors in Maine are also emphasizing the need for going through a series of multi-week “phases” to ensure safety and conditioning of the athletes before competition begins.
For superintendents, the No. 1 goal is getting the academic year started. Sports are secondary. And, what they don’t want is to have a COVID outbreak during a preseason practice session, as happened in Lake Zurich, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where 36 confirmed cases were reported among participants in a high school sports camp.
“We’re wondering about the timing of athletics, of having kids coming back to participation in fall sports, ahead of when we start in-person education and how is that is going to impact us,” said Kevin Jordan, the superintendent of AOS 94, which includes Dexter High in Penobscot County. Jordan said many districts in Penobscot County are waiting until Aug. 6 to begin activities.
The MPA also has taken a cautious tack. Back in May, Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee said, “Our approach from the MPA is that, we’re going to be more careful. We don’t care if someone looks back a year from now and says we were way too cautious. I’d rather have that than someone get sick and a whole team exposed.”
3. The closer the contact, the greater jeopardy for sports to be played.
Earlier this month, New Mexico’s governor ordered high school football and soccer to be played next spring instead of this fall. Virginia’s high school sports organization came out with three possible scenarios on Tuesday for rearranging sports seasons in 2020-21. None of them included football in the fall. Conversely, state athletic associations in Utah and Pennsylvania have declared they will go forward with their full, regular fall sports schedules.
Football’s larger roster sizes, close contact on every single play, and use of cramped, poorly ventilated locker rooms present problems.
“I don’t see how you can do football and do true social distancing the way we understand now,” said Marshwood football coach Alex Rotsko.
The U.S. Centers of Disease Control, the NFHS, and several individual state organizations have outlined which sports carry the highest risk of transmission of the virus during competition. (The MPA has yet to establish its own risk-factor chart.) While there are slight variances, football is always in the high-risk category. The NFHS document goes through a three-phase approach to returning to play. Only in the third phase does it recommend “modified” practices for high-risk sports. There is no guidance for when games in those sports should begin.
It’s not just football that’s at risk this fall. Soccer and field hockey are also sports where opposing players are in close proximity to one another. And in those sports, the play is continuous, with players breathing heavily as they run up and down the field. Coronavirus has been shown to be predominantly spread by airborne respiratory droplets.
While clearly there are differences in travel, team demographics, and adult supervision between high school sports and college sports, it is hard to ignore the flurry of colleges suspending fall sports and stating an intent to try to play football and soccer in the spring of 2021.
4. Transportation challenges will be even greater.
There will be no more piling onto a school bus with both the varsity and JV soccer team – not with CDC recommendations that only 14 people should be on a standard bus.
Even before the pandemic, transportation could be a nightmare. Waynflete Athletic Director Ross Burdick said in the past he’s had to send buses to an opponent’s school so that a sub-varsity team could travel to Waynflete. Freeport AD Craig Sickels said having only three buses available for all after-school activities on a given day is the norm.
With COVID restrictions, Sickels is among many athletic directors who would support a switch to geography-based scheduling to reduce travel time. New York, in its recent announcement, is encouraging that strategy. At this point, the MPA is not endorsing regional schedules, in part because of concern that it would be too hard for smaller, rural schools to find opponents.
Schools are going to have to rely on parents to help with transportation, or ask bus drivers to make multiple trips to one short-distance site if they intend to maintain full varsity and junior varsity programs. Getting more buses isn’t a realistic option.
“In rural Maine, we have a hard enough time finding bus drivers, and to find three or four more is a real challenge,” said Jordan, the superintendent in Dexter.
5. Restarting sports during a pandemic adds extra costs.
Athletic departments are going to need personal protective equipment and sanitizer to keep students, coaches and staff safe. They will need signage around every field telling people where they can and can’t sit. Garvis, the athletic director from Iowa, says he’s needed extra game personnel to enforce the rules. It’s all going to cost money.
Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that $165 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding that Maine has received will be designated for schools. The funding for schools is in addition to $44 million Maine already received to directly reimburse districts for coronavirus-related expenses. But Mills said more funding will be needed to fund all the safety requirements.
Jessica Hopgood, the certified athletic trainer for Sanford High, said she’s already ordered $3,000 worth of face masks, sanitizer and touchless sanitizer dispensers. She’s not sure how long that will last. What she hasn’t yet ordered, because she’s unsure she can afford to, are typical supplies like athletic tape.
Another potential cost could be hiring more coaches (if they can be found), or at least supervisory personnel, to allow small groups of players to work out separately during the season – especially if athletic programs want to maintain sub-varsity programs.
Why is that important? Garvis, the AD in Iowa, had to quarantine two of his sub-varsity baseball teams during the season. The only reason his varsity team wasn’t forced to also quarantine is because from the outset, Garvis kept teams isolated from one another.
6. Fans, the few that will be allowed at games, will have to adapt.
The Mills’ administration announced Friday that virtually all students and staff will be required to wear face masks when schools reopen. Coaches and players will wear masks when on the sidelines or benches – and fans are likely to be required to do the same, particularly for indoor events.
It’s also likely that attendance limits will have to be set. Maine has a 50-person limit on gatherings through at least the end of August. If that continues through the fall, what would a playoff game look and feel like?
Asked what advice he would offer to athletic directors, Dolloff said ADs need to start thinking about how they will monitor and appease fans. “Will you offer streaming of the games? Will it be parents only (at games)? What about stepparents?” Dolloff said.
7. Then comes winter.
Even if players, coaches, parents and fans can get through the fall season, the winter sports season could be even more challenging. All winter sports except skiing are indoors. Mask wearing and social distancing will become more important, even though much of the allure and excitement around sports like basketball and hockey involve playing in front of large, vocal crowds, with rambunctious student cheering sections.
Maine, and the nation, could be in a very different place when it comes to the virus.
Dan Schuster is the director of educational services for the NFHS. He joined a Pandemic Project Zoom meeting to discuss the organization’s online professional development course called “COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators.”
“COVID is making the rules here. Let’s not forget that,” Schuster said. “We’re trying to play the best that we can. We want to get all this information to the coaches and administrators, but every piece of content in the course could change.”
Still, Schuster is optimistic that high school sports can adapt.
“We’re seeing a lot of these college sports cancel, but high school sports are unique. We are community-based and we think just because the colleges and universities are canceling, it doesn’t mean the high schools have to follow that,” Schuster said. “We have to do what the virus essentially allows us to do.”
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