MISSOULA — At last, there is a plan.
The Missoula City-County Health Department released its COVID-19 related guidelines for fall high school sports in the county on Friday morning. Missoula County Public Schools sent an email out to parents on Friday afternoon signed by Superintendent Rob Watson as well as the activity directors at Sentinel, Hellgate and Big Sky high schools saying its plan would align directly with the county's guidelines.
Spectators will be allowed at sporting events in Missoula County this fall, the MCPS plan says. Tickets will be limited to two per student-athlete and two per cheer squad member.
All spectators age five and up will be required to wear a mask. MCPS will review the guidelines in four weeks.
"MCPS supports the guidance and directives from the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD). We believe that their guidance has been written for the health and safety of our entire community," the email reads. "In addition, we believe that the public health orders, when followed by everyone, have helped to maintain the relatively low number of active cases in Missoula County, when compared to other counties in Montana.
"We know that our return to in-person learning is dependent on management of the COVID-19 virus within our community, and we support the efforts and steps taken by MCCHD."
Outside of MCPS, Frenchtown, Loyola Sacred Heart and Valley Christian all plan to follow the county guidelines. Valley Christian plays its home football games in Superior, so it will follow Mineral County guidelines for those games.
Valley Christian was looking to play football in Missoula, but athletic director Brian Becker said the school was told by MCPS it was not renting out its facilities at this time.
Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy addressed the guidelines in the department's daily COVID-19 video briefing.
"School athletic activities are determined, first of all, by the governor saying schools are allowed to open and then with local school boards having local control, each board determines if they're going to open and what way they're going to open," Leahy said in the video. "When they open, those activities outside of class are considered part of that school experience.
"Sports are going forward. That has not been the question."
She went on to say that parents wanting to attend these events make it a group gathering, subject to state and county coronavirus response rules, such as distancing requirements. She explained that the rules are needed due to spectators wanting to attend athletic events.
"Those are the same rules we've been following since May, when Phase Two began," Leahy said.
There are two separate guidelines for fall sports with spectators, one for football and the other for non-football sports. If there are no spectators at an event, teams simply have to follow Montana High School Association protocols laid down on July 27.
One event, an eight-school Class AA golf tournament at Canyon River Golf Club, has already been held in Missoula County. Spectators were not present on the course at the event.
For football, Class AA teams in Missoula County are limited to 60 people per side and 120 total, including referees, coaches and volunteers. Class A, Class B and Class C teams are limited to 45 people per side and 90 total.
There are various other stipulations, including a cloth mask being worn at all times except when on the field. Six-foot distancing must be maintained outside of "necessary interaction by coaches and staff," the county guidelines state.
Concessions and half-time activities, including marching bands, are prohibited. Cheer squad members are allowed, but must maintain distancing among themselves.
Home team players and cheer squad members will be allowed two tickets per student. At crosstown events, two tickets will be allowed for both home and away student competitors and cheer members.
Football will not be allowed to host away-team fans. There is no stipulation in the plan that prohibits away fans in non-football sports.
In addition, all spectator rules must be followed in accordance to Appendix A of the “Events and Gatherings with More Than 50 People” of the Missoula City-County Health Officer’s Order issued on May 28.
"We understand the importance of school activities as they relate to social, emotional and physical development of our students. We also recognize the importance of allowing parents/guardians to participate as spectators," the email read. "Due to COVID-19 precautions, our procedures related to events and gatherings are more restrictive than previous years. We are asking for parent and student cooperation with these guidelines, so that we can continue to move forward with our fall sports seasons."
Jordan Hansen covers a bunch of stuff for the Missoulian and 406 Sports. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or shoot him an email at Jordan.Hansen@406mtsports.com
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