Less than a week after announcing high school wrestlers should be fully immunized, the Maine Principals’ Association said Tuesday it was reconsidering its decision following criticism from parents, coaches and athletic directors.
The principals association, which oversees high school sports in the state, sent a notice to schools on Thursday saying wrestlers must be fully immunized. The advisory came just over two weeks before the wrestling teams began training for the winter season on November 22. No other school sport in Maine has a vaccination mandate.
The tenure was done primarily because the organization’s sports medicine committee felt it was dangerous to wrestle with face masks, according to Mike Bisson, deputy executive director of the MPA and his wrestling contact. . However, the MPA has not yet determined whether face masks will be required for winter sports. Their use would be in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for indoor activities, Bisson said.
On Saturday, as he prepared to oversee the state football championships at Massabesic High, Bisson said he had already started receiving comments on the vaccine’s mandate.
“I’ve heard a lot of ‘this makes sense’ – and I’ve heard from angry parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated,” Bisson said. “And you make them make a decision as to whether or not they’re going to struggle because they’re not sure they want to get their children vaccinated.”
Maine was among the few states not to allow wrestling in the 2020-21 school year. The association of school directors initially delayed the start of the season before deciding at the end of February to cancel it. At that time, the MPA was operating under state guidelines for community sports, which considered wrestling a high-risk sport and only allowed those sports to engage in socially distanced practice activities. These guidelines were withdrawn at the end of May.
On Tuesday, the MPA Sports Medicine Committee met again to reconsider the mandate. At this point, no decision has been made on whether to require wrestlers to be vaccinated.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Bisson said, adding that meetings with the MPA’s interschool management committee – the organization’s decision-making group – and the regional presidents of the Maine School Superintendents Association will take place in the next days.
Coaches and athletic directors fear that the vaccine requirement will cause many wrestlers to retire from a grueling sport that has seen a 29% drop in participation in the 10 years from 2009-10 to 2018-19.
“If they stick with (vaccines), obviously we’ll lose athletes,” said Kevin Gray, the wrestling coach of 2019 Class A champion Noble High. “Losing a year last year and if we have a non-normal year, which is what that looks like, you will see schools lose numbers. “
Gardiner’s longtime wrestling trainer Matt Hanley agreed that a vaccination mandate would impact his schedule. “I know a few kids in my program who would have chosen not to participate,” he said. “If the MPA changes its mind, it will have a big impact on the fight.”
Some sports officials are frustrated that a decision has taken so long when the season is about to begin.
“Why do it at the 11th hour as usual with AMP?” Gray asked. “With everything they’ve dealt with, it’s the eleventh hour and they don’t seem to take into account what the rest of the country is doing. Why don’t we look at what other New England states are doing or even chat with them? “
Marshwood athletic director Rich Buzzell said 12 students have signed up to wrestle at Marshwood this season. Of these, five are fully vaccinated and one is partially vaccinated.
“Right now, if my six decide to get the shot, to get the shot completely, it will take six weeks,” Buzzell said. “Even if they are going to get shot today, their first eligible meeting we have would be on December 22. So they essentially lose three countable dates (on the calendar) plus the exhibition.
“The notification (from the MPA) certainly should have come sooner.”
Many states that struggled last season needed face masks, including Massachusetts, which ended up struggling away in the spring, and New Hampshire. This year, Massachusetts will continue to use face masks. New Hampshire won’t.
According to an informal survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in September, two of the 35 responding states said they would require face masks for wrestlers.
When it comes to vaccinations, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are “the two state associations we currently know of to make vaccination mandatory for all student-athletes,” said Cody Porter, head of media relations. of the NFHS. No state has made a vaccine mandate for wrestling alone or canceled its 2021-22 wrestling season, Porter said.
The Maine Department of Education has not mandated immunizations for any segment of the K-12 population, including staff and teachers. But there is a national precedent, mainly in large school systems, for requiring vaccination to participate in high school sports. New York City requires it for “high risk” sports. Baltimore will require vaccines for all winter sports. Los Angeles and Fairfax County, a district of 190,000 students in Virginia, require vaccinations in all sports.
Gray said it was not fair to single out wrestlers as the one group in the entire education system that needs to be vaccinated.
“I don’t think they would have done that in basketball two weeks before preseason, to say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to totally transform the look or could look of your team.” , Gray said.
Other high school winter sports teams that use college facilities face similar vaccination issues as colleges require vaccinations, or in some cases negative COVID-19 tests, must be on campus . But that’s because of college rules, not because of a mandate from the public school system.
And there is leeway for these athletes, said Tim Spear, athletic director of Gorham High and a member of the MPA’s sports medicine committee.
For example, the Gorham ice hockey and indoor track and field teams use the facilities at the University of Southern Maine. Spear said if a student chooses not to be vaccinated, they can still use USM facilities if they are part of group testing at a school or by providing weekly proof of a negative COVID-19 test. .
Spear said it was not the sports medicine committee’s intention to “separate or separate” the wrestling community.
“We all want to wrestle. We want them to have this opportunity, ”said Spear, adding that a real concern is that another lost season will cause elite wrestlers to find other ways, like clubs out of state, to. wrestling “and the sport of wrestling in high school could be lost.”
Spear said a big part of Tuesday’s sports medicine committee meeting was to discuss whether wearing a mask during wrestling is a safety issue big enough to require a vaccine warrant.
“Is this really what we want? Mandate for people who do not want to be vaccinated? The last thing we want is to lose student athletes, ”Spear said.
Athletic directors Dennis Walton, of Biddeford High, and Lance Johnson, of Portland High, said the decision could ultimately fall to local control, as has been the case with much of the pandemic.
“We learned a long time ago during the pandemic that when a decision is made, we have to wait for the final decision,” Walton said. “I know the superintendents always get together, so now we’re waiting for them.”
“It all comes down to local control,” Johnson said. “I think the superintendents of Cumberland and York counties, and across the state, want to work together to ensure there is some consistency in what we do.”
Press Herald editor-in-chief Mike Lowe and Central Maine Newspapers editor-in-chief Bill Stewart contributed to this report.
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