At the Glacier High School homecoming football game against Big Sky on Sept. 25, the announcements during halftime were, for the most part, typical.
The homecoming representatives from each activity and athletic team were announced and walked onto the football team in dresses and ties. After an adequate amount of time to build proper anticipation, the winners were announced and Glacier’s homecoming royalty was crowned.
As the contestants made their way back into the stands, however, another announcement came over the sound system.
“Glacier High School would like to remind all spectators to be responsible and remember the three W’s,” the voice of Glacier Activities Director Mark Dennehy said. “Wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask. Go Wolfpack!”
The announcement is now a normal part of activities in the Kalispell school district, a subtle but necessary nod to the fact that a high school football game is taking place during a global pandemic.
No Pandemic Blueprint
In a normal school year, high school activities directors are unsung heroes. They coordinate bussing schedules, competitions, and practice routines for a half-dozen sports and activities each semester, and manage the associated athletes, participants and coaches.
This year is far from normal, and there’s no blueprint for running a sports season during a pandemic.
“I’m sure my district web person is tired of me changing the schedule,” Columbia Falls Activities Director Troy Bowman said. “I think I send them an email every day with some change. It’s definitely been a challenge.”
A look at Whitefish High’s online activities calendar shows crossed out volleyball matches, golf tournaments and froshmore football games.
“You put so much time and energy into preparing for an event and then it just goes out the window,” Whitefish High Activities Director Aric Harris said. “This is important to so many people and so many parents after seeing what kids went through with the canceled spring season. It was real tough on everyone.”
On March 13, the Montana High School Association postponed the start of spring sports to mid-April, a date that was pushed later and later. On April 22, MHSA officially canceled the track, tennis and softball season, an unprecedented measure in the state.
Thus began the summer of Zoom meetings, as state, district and local school officials worked to figure out how to safely implement a fall sports season in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
When Montana entered Phase 2 of reopening, and groups of up to 50 people were allowed to congregate, MHSA released guidelines for summer activities, as well as how fall practices and competitions would be able to go forward.
“That first practice to be out there in front of the kids, seeing them back in their element competing was phenomenal,” Harris said. “Our kids need that not just for the competition piece, but for the camaraderie of being around their peers — the mental health impact of not having school and activities takes a toll.”
Allowing practices to go forward kicked off a flurry of changes affecting every level of the already busy athletics season.
“We’ve had to develop new routines and norms for practices and games and transportation,” Dennehy said. “There’s just an added layer to probably every single element we do on a daily basis and I’ve got to say, coaches have handled those adjustments with grace and dignity.”
Buses driving teams to competitions are no longer packed to capacity. Spectators watching football games in Columbia Falls or golf tournaments in Kalispell have to check in, record phone numbers in case contact tracing is required, and mask up the entire time.
“The process just gets old, it’s a grind,” Bowman said. “It’s not fun when 90 percent of your night is constantly reminding people to put their masks up.”
One helpful break for ADs across the state was a change implemented by the Montana High School Association in the spring to start using Dragonfly, an online service that handles participant paperwork (physicals, waivers, etc.) as well as scheduling, rosters and payments.
While the change was planned prior to the coronavirus outbreak, it has streamlined many of the processes required by students before taking part in any activities and eliminated the need for coaches and administrators to keep track of individual paperwork.
“It’s been such a good thing, not having to meet people in person constantly, everyone can keep their distance and complete these kids’ files electronically,” Bowman said. “If there’s any schedule changes, I can send out one message and boom, all accounts associated with that activity are getting notified.”
An additional aid that was implemented in recent years is a deal several schools have made with the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Network, which provides live streaming of high school sports. A promotion a few years ago allowed Columbia Falls to purchase and install a camera in the football stadium and one in the gym.
“Last year, it was pretty favorable without glitches,” Bowman said, pointing out that a system designed to help spectators during bad weather was perfect for a pandemic. “But this season we’re having a tough time getting bugs worked out.”
Bowman said that issues with the streaming service have added another reason his office is constantly inundated with calls.
“I feel like I need a help desk or a switchboard here,” Bowman said. “The phone rings off the hook, or Facebook lights up — everyone has their pitchforks out.”
In Bigfork, Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio has been dealing with a recent escalation in COVID cases. A case on the volleyball team put most of the players in quarantine, prompting the cancellation of two weeks of games.
“We’re a smaller school, so if you lose two or three of your key positions, you’re pretty quickly impacting the effectiveness of the team,” Porrovecchio said. “I don’t want to embellish it, but if you lose a majority of starters that’s a big deal. The potential for injury goes up, the team you play doesn’t get as strong of a competition and it’s not a good experience for anyone.”
In addition, contact tracing has identified a few football players who are also currently under quarantine, potentially jeopardizing the Vikings on the gridiron.
“We were so stoked to have our kids here at school and now to start losing them, that’s the pits,” Porrovecchio said. “But we’re competing in sports, we’re here, we’re doing it and that’s just sweet.”
Flathead High School has been hit the hardest of the local schools. The school had a total of 22 positive cases of COVID-19 between students and staff reported as of Sept. 23, and the volleyball team canceled all games last week due to a number of athletes in quarantine.
Flathead High Activities Director Bryce Wilson couldn’t be reached for comment, as he is currently in quarantine himself, along with the high school’s principal.
Since schools opened in August, there has been an underlying question of whether they would be able to stay open, and if not, whether activities could continue.
The largest concern, according to Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, is the availability of staff. All districts in the valley are facing shortages of substitute teachers, with quarantines making staffing difficult. Hill has said that KPS is “pretty close” to reaching the point where closing a school might be a necessary step.
Dennehy said if the high school had to shut down, athletics would go forward, although it would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“If a team had to quarantine, that wouldn’t necessarily necessitate the shutdown of the school and I think that same logic would hold true the other way,” Dennehy said. “Provided those folks, those coaches, weren’t sick, it would allow us to continue in athletic or activity programs.”
ADs and coaches across the valley have all pointed to the fact that kids being allowed to be on the field or court is a win for the year.
“Activities and schools are important for our kids and their development and the kids and parents see the value of participation more this year,” Dennehy said. “There’s been a renewed enjoyment in both school and activities.”
The adjustments are going to continue, with every school handling changes day by day.
“The most important thing is that the kids that are sick are getting better and recovering,” Porrovecchio said. “If you get kids out to a game and they stay healthy, that’s a win.”