When Missoula County Public Schools superintendent Rob Watson released an email from the Class AA superintendents requesting the Montana High School Association consider delaying the start of competition for winter sports, it was met with mixed reaction.
"The rationale for this request was the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in our communities and the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing in our winter sports," read Watson's email. "While we know that physical activity is important for all of us, the quarantining process when a positive case occurs on a sports team can create a significant disruption to in-person learning."
MHSA executive director Mark Beckman confirmed the request of the Class AA superintendents but maintained the winter sports seasons would go on as planned, beginning Saturday, Jan. 2, with plans to assess the situation in the coming days.
Quarantines were already impacting Class AA winter sports programs in December, with Missoula Sentinel's boys basketball team taking a pause from Dec. 14-21, per the school's Twitter account. Class AA superintendents feared similar quarantines and cancellations might disrupt the beginning of the winter sports season.
"It’s a conversation that the AA superintendents had for probably two or three weeks prior to the letter, and we debated back and forth, obviously," Great Falls Public Schools superintendent Tom Moore told MTN. "The culture in each community across Montana is a little different, the needs and desires of their school boards and communities are unique to each town, so there was quite a bit of debate back and forth about what the right thing to do was. But, at the end of the day, we asked the Montana High School Association to consider postponing or delaying the start of competition and monitoring the COVID situation across the state in our different locations to make sure it was safe and reasonable to have students travel from one community to the other, to have gatherings in gyms across the state."
"If you look at the sports, wrestling and basketball are contact, close-contact sports. You can’t get any closer than wrestling, and basketball is constantly in proximity under the basket, on the court, so on and so forth," Moore continued. "If somebody has an infection, it’s going to probably take out both teams. They’re high-risk sports. So making sure the competition climate is safe is what, I think, we were shooting for. We know there are going to be risks regardless, so what’s the situation statewide? We’re looking for our health officials to help us with that. We had some pediatricians out of Billings that wrote a letter and petitioned that, as well, and there’s some debate with other medical professionals about what the right thing to do is."
The MHSA executive board will meet on Monday, Jan. 11, with plans to evaluate the COVID-19 numbers post-Christmas break, while also providing an update from its group of pediatricians, which includes Dr. Greg Holzman from the Association of Montana Public Health Officials.
Bozeman High and Bozeman Gallatin athletic director Mark Ator said he understands the concerns from the superintendents but also recognized the MHSA's decision.
"The one thing that's hard with the AA schools, larger communities worried about outbreak, and when you're on the MHSA board, that is a tough situation because you represent all schools. I mean, northeast Montana to the Bitterroot, Hi-Line to Billings, you've got them all," said Ator, who has served on the executive board in the past. "So you've got to sit down and take a look at everything, and it's tough for the MHSA to do something for one group and not the other.
"I knew what the superintendents were doing, and obviously I'm happy to be in Bozeman and we support them, but I also knew what the reaction was going to be and I knew what the MHSA board was thinking that, they've made a decision to play, to provide safety protocols as much as possible, and that's what they want for all schools. And if you choose not to play, which some schools have had to do this year, then, you know, that's totally understandable, and that's the way it goes for that community, and you support them when they do do that. But right now, the kids want to play and the parents support them playing, as long as we are being overly cautious, which I think we are."
Ator applauded the safety protocols and guidelines that have been put in place and said he understands the likelihood of athletes, coaches and possibly entire programs needing to quarantine due to contact tracing this winter. He also mentioned the thorough return-to-play guidelines the MHSA has in place for a participant to resume competition following a positive COVID-19 test.
But Ator also pointed to another key factor that parents, in particular, have stressed since the spring sports season was canceled last April: the mental health of students and athletes alike.
"The one thing that's come up a lot, and it's cliche in some sense, but it's also not, it's the mental health issue. It's been hard on kids to be isolated and to not have their activities," Ator said. "As a parent, last spring got awfully rough, and I saw what was happening with my son and his friends and the whole thing, and so did many other parents. When we were able to open things up in June for open gyms, there wasn't a parent that said no. We got many phone calls saying, 'Thank you for making the effort.' And so, I think that's where we're at. It's just the kids needing something to do, whether it's being physically active or whether it is the social activity. I mean, even us adults need that sometime. I'd rather shake hands and visit face-to-face than Zoom meetings, but that's what we've done for the past year."
Though smaller classifications in Montana were also impacted by COVID-19 during the fall sports season, many communities didn't see positive cases affect their sports teams, leading athletes, coaches and administrators from Class B and Class C, especially, surprised by Class AA's request to postpone the winter sports season.
"I think that when you read that just out of the blue, you are wondering who is speaking for you, I guess, because we can only go by what we've experienced in Class B and these area Class A and Class C schools that we compete with and have competed with all fall," said Glasgow athletic director Brenner Flaten, who confirmed the Scotties' fall sports programs each played the maximum amount of regular-season games allowed. "So, when I see a request like that, it doesn't really necessarily match up with what we've experienced. So it would be kind of a bit of a head-scratcher as to why."
Flaten referred to Class AA's prior decision to delay its own fall sports competitions by two weeks, discussing the largest classification's choice to do the same this winter. Moore acknowledged the idea of again delaying, while also confirming individual schools and programs are also free to completely cancel activities, though that would be considered a last resort.
"We could (opt out) at the detriment of our athletes. If it wasn’t safe, if our COVID rates in Cascade County and our school district were such that it wasn’t safe, then it would be a deciding factor that we would have to consider. I would respect the same thing in Billings, Bozeman or wherever else they were experiencing an outbreak," said Moore. "We’ll just have to deal with that in January.
"What we wanted to do, those of us that were talking about this strategy, we’re supposed to start on (Jan. 2) for competition, we wanted to see what was going to happen after the Christmas break with a spike in COVID. We didn’t see that after Thanksgiving, so I don’t know what we’ll see after two weeks and three weekends of break time with our athletes, coaches and so forth. Hopefully we’ll be able to resume again and we won’t have any problems. We’ll see."
Notes: Class AA cities have begun releasing their winter sports guidelines, particularly those regarding spectators. So far, Great Falls Public Schools, Flathead County and Helena Public Schools have shared their policies with MTN Sports. ... Missoula County Public Schools confirmed with MTN Sports on Wednesday it will postpone all sub-varsity winter sports competition.