HELENA -- While cancellations and postponements continue all around them, the Montana High School Association executive board remains confident in its return-to-play fall sports guidelines.
On Thursday, while the Big Sky Conference was postponing all of its fall activities to the spring, and the Frontier Conference made the surprising decision to postpone its football season to next year, the MHSA board approved a number of proposals that will ultimately allow for the fall activities to continue.
On the same day high school golf programs were allowed to begin practice, and one day before high school football, volleyball, cross country and soccer programs were allowed to hit the practice fields, the MHSA board heard proposals from around the state regarding the upcoming calendar year.
Among the actions approved on Thursday were the allowance of classifications to cancel their non-conference games, which Class AA intends to do; passing a motion for Class A football to remove its opening round of the playoffs, which cuts the postseason teams from 12 to eight; and changing the required number of officials for regular-season contests in football and soccer due to official shortages.
"We also allowed that now because of some of the shortage of officials that we have and have had for several years, plus we’re seeing a little bit more of a shortage now with some officials not choosing to actually officiate during (the coronavirus pandemic), and we get that," said MHSA executive director Mark Beckman, "so we’re going to allow two varsity soccer officials to do a regular-season game instead of three, and four varsity football officials instead of five."
While Class AA is currently the only classification planning to cancel its non-conference contests, the approval for any classification to follow suit allows for some evaluation periods, according to Beckman.
"It doesn’t really make too much of a difference, but it allows those schools to have some time to make sure to say, ‘OK, where are we at?’ Maybe they have an extra week of practice instead of pushing that, too, and in these days and times that’s probably a good thing," Beckman said. "They can also make sure to work with their local health departments in regard to fans and fan attendance."
Beckman said all decisions regarding fans and attendance numbers will remain up to local city and county health departments because "those health departments are the experts in their community, and that's their authority." The MHSA has remained dedicated to following Governor Steve Bullock's directives first and foremost, then abiding by the guidelines set from local city and county health departments.
One deviation from those guidelines was the MHSA's announcement Thursday that all players, coaches and officials will be required to wear masks at all times other than when on the field of play. Substitutes must wear masks on the sideline when not competing, and that rule will be enforced at every event in each county, regardless of the number of COVID-19 cases.
Gov. Bullock's latest directives required wearing facial coverings in all counties with at least four positive cases.
"The board put in that masks have to be worn even in the communities that have less than four cases (of COVID-19), because the governor’s directives didn’t say that," Beckman explained. "They said you didn’t have to (in counties with less than four positive cases), but we want to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and that we don’t bring the virus in from the outside and that we don’t bring the virus out from a community to another location."
One motion that was floored before heading to vote on Thursday morning was the idea of adopting a four-season sports schedule in Class AA -- playing the sports of golf, tennis, volleyball and cross country in the fall; basketball, swimming and wrestling in the winter; football and soccer in the spring; then finishing the year with softball and track in the early summer.
The motion was never seconded, and Beckman quickly explained the challenges in adopting such changes, especially this close to the beginning of fall activities.
"Our board, I think, has looked at it for the last several days, and so they went through and probably evaluated it as we did on the staff — what are some of the factors if you start to move seasons, especially this late in the year? What has happened up to this point?" said Beckman. "We’re moving into this season right now, we’re hoping that we’re going to continue to have very positive results from starting to play now. Because we don’t have that crystal ball to see what’s going to happen, you know, come winter with cold and flu season, and can you differentiate between that and COVID? And then again in the spring, we’re hoping for maybe a vaccine or something, but with all those factors, I think our board looked at it and said it’s probably best that we look at starting the season now, allow those non-conference games to be canceled if the conference chooses to, and then re-evaluate things after Sept. 15, looking and saying, ‘Oh, there’s a spike,’ or ‘There are some problems.’ Then we could re-evaluate and look at some other options at that time."
Perhaps the most important action taken by the MHSA executive board Thursday was the guideline in allowing participants to return to competition after previously testing positive for COVID-19. The board's ruling stated a participant "cannot return to play until he/she is evaluated by a licensed health care professional, and has written clearance to return to play by both the county health department and a licensed health care professional."
While it seems possible participants could potentially hide their symptoms in attempt to resume competition, Beckman believes student-athletes, coaches and school officials will remain dedicated to following the regulations in place.
"I’d probably have to compare it to concussions because the same thing happens with concussions where they have a head injury and it’s, ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Yeah.’ Well, all of a sudden there are signs and symptoms of a concussion," he said. "I think it’s going to be the same with COVID. When they’re exhibiting the signs and symptoms, coaches are going to be smart because they know it could affect their whole season, their entire team."
"I’ll tell you one thing I know being in this office for the past 24 years, in dealing with a lot of different issues where our schools are self-governing, they actually have to self-police and that, I’m very confident with our administrators and with the will to play," he continued. "The kids, the excitement, trying to make sure that their emotional well-being is good, I just think everybody is going to jump in and say, ‘We’re going to do what we have to do. We’re going to make sure that we follow up and make sure the rules and regulations are being followed,’ and we’ll keep tabs on that. But I really feel confident that our schools and administrators and coaches and our teams are going to follow those rules."
There may not be a crystal ball, but that kind of confidence says it all.