BILLINGS — Fall high school sports, pep band and cheerleading will happen this season in Yellowstone County, but no fans are allowed in until further notice after new restrictions were enacted Tuesday by Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton.
The Yellowstone County athletics plan will be followed by all county middle and high schools. It was created with input from county school district officials and the county health department, Felton said.
“I realize that some of the restrictions we will discuss will not be popular with some, but we must work from the premise that the most important thing we need to do is keep our kids as safe as we reasonably can. Activities and athletics are an important part of school life and as we have had to do many times during the pandemic, we need to adjust how we do things," Felton said at a media conference.
The county school and health leaders opted for a policy that was more restrictive with the hope that they it can be eased if case counts and transmission rates slow as schools begin to open back up.
“We want to adhere to those guidelines, especially early on with the hope that there will be early successes so that we can loosen the restrictions that are in place and get more people back to these events," said Mike Ryan, Billings Central Catholic High School activity director.
Felton said the county health department will look to COVID-19 case counts and the rate of transmission to make future decisions about easing fan attendance restrictions.
“We will be watching for what’s happening with the student participants themselves. Our coaches and athletic departments have worked really hard to develop a process where they can cohort their participants so that if someone becomes ill, it doesn’t necessarily take out the whole team," Felton said.
As of Tuesday, Felton said Yellowstone County is averaging 28 new COVID-19 cases per day. Of all hospitalized patients in Montana, half of them are in Yellowstone County. 26 patients reside outside of the county and 23 reside in the county.
While fans won't be attending events in Yellowstone County, Felton said fans could see their team play in another county, as long that county's sports guidelines allow for fan attendance.
“Other counties will have their own plans. As was said, we need to make sure that we understand when our teams travel, what the restrictions are in those counties so we can abide by them," Felton said.
As part of the guidelines, all student athletes, coaches, pep band members and cheerleaders will be asked the COVID-19 screening questions before the start of every team practice or competition, Felton said.
If a student or coach shows symptoms after conducting the screening, they may be required to quarantine at home for up to 10 days. If a player or coach tests positive, RiverStone Health will be responsible for contact tracing and identifying close contacts who may also need to be quarantined at home.
“Those who screen positive for any of these symptoms, even mild symptoms, will be removed from the practice or game in the interest of safety of other students and staff," Felton said.
If coaches are found to be disregarding screening questions and utilizing players who may be sick, Ryan said the Montana High School Association would be responsible for any disciplinary actions.
“I’m guessing that if a situation like that developed, then the Montana High School Association would be responsible for any consequences that a school faced," Ryan said.
In the Billings Public Schools, Athletics and Activities Director Mark Wahl said all coaches and players are committed to following the health department's guidelines and will do what it takes to get back on the field.
"Can we guarantee that every student is going to be honest and disclose an illness? Not necessarily, but our coaches are pretty good at recognizing when kids aren't themselves. I have no doubt at all that our coaches will do the right thing when they recognize that there's a situation, whether it's the best player or not, I have no doubt that they will do the right thing," Wahl said.
The home team's school will be responsible for enacting and communicating the sports guidelines with all visiting teams. When a Yellowstone County team travels, they will be responsible for following the other county's restrictions.
In Yellowstone County, members of the pep band and cheerleading teams will be allowed inside events, but there are limitations on the ways they can perform.
Masks will be worn by everyone except for people actively involved in physical activity or people playing brass or woodwind instruments. On the football field, a mask will only need to be worn by a player if they are out of the game for more than one play, Felton said.
Members of the media will be allowed inside to provide coverage, but will wear masks and be socially distanced, according to the plan.
A host of other requirements can be read in the official plan that can be accessed by clicking here.
“The bottom line is that these safety guidelines that we are faced with are very difficult. We have high expectations for the diligence required to maintain a safe environment for every participant. We all wish that things were normal and that we didn’t have to deal with these issues, but if we are going to accomplish our goal to keep kids participating we truly need the support of everyone in our community," Wahl said.
Fall school sports include cross country, football, volleyball, golf, and soccer. Felton said the winter sports like basketball and wrestling will be looked as closer to their seasons start.
There are a host of other events happening in the community that may contribute to disease spread, Felton said. Including students returning to college campuses, more people finishing vacations and heading back to work along with public schools resuming in person classes. Felton expects more COVID-19 cases as these things start to happen.
“We acknowledge there will likely be cases of COVID-19 associated with these activities and fully expect that this plan will evolve over time as the incidents and prevalence of COVID-19 shifts in our community. For now, being more restrictive in our requirements allows us to ease restrictions if the conditions warrant. I sincerely hope that we can do that as the school year and seasons progress," Felton said.
Smaller county school districts also participated in the plan's creation. Felton read from a letter sent by Huntley Project school district officials voicing their support.
"We look forward to continue to be a part of discussions to devise a plan, we acknowledge the challenges of trying to make a plan that works for small and large districts, and that Huntley Project School District will abide by the plan as we understand that in times of adversity activities teaches us to control what we can control and move forward to individual and team successes," the letter read in part. To view the full document, click here.