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Health

Fall Sports To Kick Off; For Many, Without The Fanfare

A student in black football gear drinks from a large waterbottle as a nearby teammate talks to a coach who's wearing a mask.
Sofia Stuart-Rasi
/
Montana Public Radio
Sentinel High School students practice football in Missoula on Aug. 27, 2020.

Fall school sports, like almost everything in 2020, will look different this year due to COVID-19. The biggest difference: Many schools aren’t allowing spectators. Some parents have pushed back against the restrictions.

Tyler Smith has put three of his four sons through the Sentinel High School football program in Missoula. He’s frustrated he can’t watch his sophomore compete this fall.

"If you have to social distance, if you need to check our temperature before we come in, fine, if that’s what it needs to be then fine," Smith said.

Missoula will allow two local spectators per athlete at home games. But Smith won’t be able to see his son play in Yellowstone, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Flathead, Silver Bow or Cascade Counties.

"We’re willing to do all these things. Why do you want to restrict the players? And if it’s okay for the local fans to come, how in the world is it something that, oh we don’t want the out of town fans to come?" Smith said.

While most schools in Montana plan to follow guidance released by the Montana High School Sports Association (MHSA) that will allow students to play this fall, districts vary in their approach to letting fans participate from the stands. The restriction is meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Cascade, Gallatin, Flathead and Silver Bow will only allow two local fans per athlete at games. Helena and Billings school districts have decided against allowing spectators all together.

"Our decision as a community with the athletics directors and our public health was let's start with no spectators," said Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton during a virtual question and answer event.

Yellowstone County has reported hundreds more cases of COVID-19 than any other county in the state.

"If we find that we can put our teams on the field and keep our kids in school and keep our schools open then the next step is add some spectators, and if that goes really well, then there’s potential for more. The incremental approach is our best hope," Felton said.

This summer Felton joined health officers from Montana’s largest counties in advocating for MHSA to push the fall Class AA football season back to spring. MHSA tabled that proposal earlier this month, opting instead to suspend non-conference games for those largest schools.

MHSA also issued guidance meant to keep student athletes safe, like requiring masks to be worn when off the court or field, reducing team sizes and health screenings for student athletes.

School districts’ sports plans have already been put to the test.

Helena High’s cross country program suspended its season days before its first official competition due to a positive case on the team. The county health department has started contact tracing and will give guidance for what happens afterward.

At a Billings school board meeting a week before school started, Athletics Director Mark Wahl said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced administrators and health officials to make rapid, difficult decisions.

"Really, the easy thing would have been to cancel activities that would have been the easy thing to do but we are so truly appreciative of the opportunity to start activities," Wahl said.

Some smaller districts such as Boulder have decided to only play games against local teams in order to reduce travel and possible exposure to COVID-19.

Tribal schools at Lodge Grass, Northern Cheyenne and St. Labre canceled their fall high school sports season entirely earlier in August due to the coronavirus spread in Big Horn County.

Yellowstone County Health Officer Felton says the goal is to balance a myriad of risks students face this fall.

"From a pure public health disease perspective only, it’d be better to not do any of the athletics, right? But there are risks with that. There are kids who go to school and what keeps them motivated is the chance to play. So there is an offsetting risk to saying no sports. We didn’t want to go there," Felton said.

For parent of Sentinel football player Tyler Smith, not allowing parents at games presents risks of its own.

"The parents want to be there. What happens if your child were to be injured? What happens if your child makes some spectacular play, especially the seniors? You know? And the players want their parents to be there," Smith said.

A petition on change.org to allow spectators at high school sports and performances has over 29,000 signatures and has been sent to Governor Steve Bullock as well as Yellowstone County Health Officer Felton.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen sent a letter to public health officers in late August encouraging them to allow parents to attend games.

On Facebook, Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines said Governor Steve Bullock, who's challenging Daines in the upcoming November election, should adopt a statewide plan for sports that allows parents to attend events.

Cheers from the bleachers might sound softer or even silent this season due to restrictions, but the passion from fans and athletes alike rings louder than any crowd.