The Houlton High School football team is pictured taking the field for an August 2019 exhibition game. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

The start of the Maine fall sports season has been pushed back another week.

The Maine Principals’ Association made the decision Wednesday, one day after the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education released a four-page letter outlining concerns about the organization’s plans to begin fall competition.

The state said several elements of the MPA’s return-to-play plan did not conform with all the COVID-19 guidance previously issued by Gov. Janet Mills and her administration.

Mike Burnham, the interscholastic executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said in a statement Wednesday that the MPA wants to align with state mandates.

“The MPA agrees with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education that it would be best to extend the delay of fall sports by one additional week to allow schools to get their academic programs underway as we further adjust our guidance,” Burnham said.

“In the coming days, we will work closely and collaboratively with the administration to modify our guidance and arrive at a solution that will honor the State’s safety protocols and protect the health and safety of student-athletes along with their communities.”

Preseason tryouts for fall sports had already been pushed back from Aug. 17 to Sept. 8 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, practices may not begin until Sept. 15 and the first countable games may not be played before September 25 for all sports except football. Regular-season football contests would now be delayed until Oct. 2.

“We are grateful to the departments for their response to our request for feedback and look forward to working with them so that students may be able to play sports as quickly and safely as possible,” Burnham said.

Mills is asking the commissioners to work with the MPA, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association to address their concerns as quickly as possible.

“The most important goal in mind: protecting the health and safety of Maine students, their extended families, their teachers, fellow students and all members of our broader Maine community,” Mills said.

Mills said she believes in the value of school sports and the way they support the physical, social and mental health of young people.

“I want to see fall sports come back this year in a way that protects the health of students on the field, in the locker room and in the classroom while safeguarding members of the larger community,” Mills said.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and DOC Commissioner Pender Makin said they appreciate the MPA’s commitment to protecting the student-athletes, fellow students, school staff and families and recognize that there is a sense of urgency to start the season.

“We believe this additional time will allow schools to focus on the challenges of resuming classes and result in guidance that allows school sports consistent with the state’s public health measures that will safeguard the health and safety of all Maine students,” the commissioners said.

Steve Bailey and Eileen King, the executive directors of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association, respectively, said they were pleased that there will be additional time to allow for a safe start-up of schools as in-person classes resume.

“We fully appreciate the importance of athletic programs and other co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in the whole-child development and believe, as do our partners, that the health and safety of students, staff and communities are of the utmost importance during this pandemic,” the directors said.