Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen came out against rules in some counties barring spectators from high school events like sports and music performances in an unusually sweeping statement from the state’s highest ranking education official.
Yellowstone and Lewis and Clark county health officials rolled out plans allowing no fans in stands for fall activities. Some other counties, like Butte-Silver Bow and Cascade, are limiting spectators to only two or three per participant.
Arntzen endorsed having parents or guardians in stands.
“We must all take safety precautions in light of COVID and I fully support the local control of our county health departments and school districts. However, I do believe that parents or guardians should be able to be present during their child’s extracurricular activities,” she wrote in a letter to the leader of the Association of Montana Public Health Officials dated Aug. 25.
The local control drumbeat is a familiar refrain for Arntzen, who emphasized it in the wake of President Donald Trump’s comments that schools “must reopen.” The reopening plan from the Office of Public Instruction contains a host of recommendations for schools in different scenarios, but no requirements.
The letter about spectators is one of the strongest statements yet from her office about how schools should operate during the pandemic. It aligns with stances taken by many fellow Republicans who want less restrictive public health rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arntzen is running for re-election this November against Democrat Melissa Romano, a rematch of the race Arntzen won in 2016.
She’s ramped up criticism of Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock this summer, arguing that his office has left OPI in the dark about decisions like a mask requirement for schools.
Guidance about extracurricular events was included in OPI’s reopening recommendations. Under “Scenario 3,” a mix of in-person and remote learning that reflects how many districts plan to operate this fall, the guidance mostly points to recommendations from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Those recommendations say that spectators should be lumped into a non-essential group that won’t “be allowed to attend events until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.”
The OPI guidance does say group sizes should be limited to 50 people or fewer if social distancing isn’t possible, in line with Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan.
In her letter, Arntzen wrote that a Montana High School Association letter supports having fans in stands.
MHSA executive director Mark Beckman confirmed that the organization sent a letter to the public health official group, but said that it was specific to medical concerns about having a parent or guardian on hand in the event of a student injury.
It did not represent “conceptual” concerns about no fans, he said, nor did it represent a retreat from the group’s earlier guidance, which left spectator attendance up to schools in consultation with county health departments.
Arntzen’s letter references the medical concerns, but also wider themes.
“Montana families are seeking a sense of normalcy as school doors reopen this fall,” she wrote. “For many families and students, that includes sports and extracurricular activities. Students interacting with their peers through sports and activities is crucial to their social-emotional and mental health.”
Locally, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton addressed questions about the no fans rule on Tuesday. The rule will be re-evaluated every few weeks, and he and other health officials believe it’s better to start with a more restrictive plan, Felton said.