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School year, sports seasons get underway

The 2020-21 school year began Monday with students returning to the classroom for the first time since March.

The start of a new school year is always an uncertain time, but few have likely started off with as many uncertainties as this one as COVID-19 guidance from the state and county continues to evolve.

Last Monday, Aug.17, the Lincoln School Board held an emergency Zoom meeting to discuss the impacts of Governor Steve Bullock's Aug. 12 face mask requirements for students returning to the classroom. At the time, it appeared to indicate students would have to wear masks at all times during the day, which caused concern for the students welfare. However, Elementary Principal Shane Brown said the staff received a clarification from the governor's office Wednesday, indicating students could remove masks during class.

"Students are allowed to remove masks during school only if they are seated in their seats in the classroom, (but in) all other areas the mask must be worn, such as in the hallways and when walking around the school," Brown told the BVD in an e-mail. "While they eat or drink they may also remove their mask. There is also an opportunity for removal when they may be up in front of class giving a presentation. All of this is, of course, assuming they maintain social distancing of six feet."

Student are also allowed to remove masks while they are actively exercising during physical education classes.

The clarification was in line with what the school had been planning for returning students, prior to the directive.

The start of the school year also means the return of school sports, modified for the COVID-19 situation.

Students who have opted not to return to class physically but instead participate online, will not be eligible for sports. The local decision is based on the belief that the concern keeping them from physically attending class will probably also be present at sporting events.

Students who maintain eligibility and participate in sports will be allowed to remove masks while playing, but according to an MHSA directive issued Aug. 12 coaches, staff and players who aren't competing are required to wear face coverings. The MHSA directive even applies to schools in counties below the four active case threshold set out in the governor's July mask directive.

Although there was a question surrounding non-conference games, they should still be on the schedule this year.

Brown, who is also the school's athletic director, said the large Class AA schools will not be playing non-conference schedules and are just focusing on conference games, while Class A schools have cut back on tournaments.

MHSA is allowing Class B and C schools to opt out of non-conference games without a penalty, but Brown said the schools he's talked to are continuing their non-conference schedules, and some are seeking out non-conference games to fill out their seasons.

"We would be setup to play 12 conference games in volleyball. Anything above that is non-conference," he said. "(Those are) usually filled by teams like St. Regis, or by jamborees that aren't happening now."

Lincoln's football season looks different. Since the team is still Junior Varsity, all games are considered non-conference.

Another question that still needs to be resolved is the number of spectators who will be able to watch games in the gym, due to social distancing guidelines.

Sporting events at Helena schools will ban spectators to comply with the governor's Phase 2 re-opening guidance, which allows gathering of up to 50 people without social distancing.

Since the Helena schools have larger teams, they run the risk of exceeding that number quickly by allowing spectators, in which case everyone, including athletes, would have to observe the social distancing guidelines.

Smaller schools like Lincoln have the same issues, but since they have smaller team sizes, they should be able to more easily socially distance team members who aren't actively competing, while also allowing some spectators.

"When I called the county health department last week they told me I can have attendance, as long as social distancing is observed." Brown told the BVD. An initial estimate based on bleacher space and team sizes, could allow for up to 150 spectators.

"That number would be counting the teams, coaches, refs (and) essential personnel to conduct a game and fans," he said. "A quick thought was possibly offering three passes to each of our players, which they could hand out."

Brown was uncertain if that will require him to submit a plan to Lewis and Clark Public Health, and he

cautioned that, regardless of the final word, the situation could change at any time depending on state and county guidance.


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