Lake area schools see return to normal for live events one year since COVID-19 arrival

Michael Losch
Lake Sun Leader
Softball.

For school districts around Lake of the Ozarks, it is an encouraging step forward. 

As vaccines continue to be distributed and positivity rates of COVID-19 fall in the Lake area and across the state of Missouri, attendance restrictions at local school events have been scaled back in a proverbial breath of fresh air. It is an encouraging step forward, considering where things were about a year ago. 

The COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world and made its way to the Lake area by mid-March. Schools began to announce the cancellation of classes and eventually all of spring sports and activities, stores began to be depleted of resources and uncertainty rose as quarantine became a new normal. This new normal was especially tough for seniors and their families as they saw their opportunities to create some final high school memories ripped away. 

“It was really painful last spring standing in front of the spring sports athletes and telling them we are cancelling their season, especially to those seniors,” Versailles activities director Kyle Middleton told the Lake Sun last fall as activities began to make their return at the start of the school year. “That is something I do not wish to do again so that is why we are trying to be as safe as possible.” 

Well, it has not been a perfect school year as Lake area teams and organizations saw a number of their events cancelled while individuals also missed out in the need to self-quarantine, but sports and activities have persisted and continued on in the middle of the pandemic as schools adhered to guidelines from local health departments. Those guidelines can now be less restrictive with the health departments in Camden, Miller and Morgan Counties currently being in a phase that is known as “category three” the lowest risk category deemed “serious” while category two is considered a “critical risk”  and category one is an “extreme risk.” 

In order for a county to be in category three, the 7-day positivity rate must be between five and nine percent and the 7-day case rate per 100,000 people must be between 10 and 99. There are no limits on business occupancy, a social group size is limited to maintaining six feet of distance and masks are advised in all offices and businesses with 10-plus people where social distancing is not possible. 

With spring sports and activities set to make a return for the first time in two years, here is where things currently stand among all Lake area school districts.

CAMDENTON, CLIMAX SPRINGS AND MACKS CREEK (CAMDEN COUNTY)

As of this time, the Camden County Health Department does not have any specific plans or recommendations it plans to issue to schools in the county and is leaving each school district to make their own choices in accordance with state guidelines. 

“With positive case numbers coming down, some are lifting certain aspects of their restrictions,” Camden County Health Department Administrator Stephanie Dake noted, “but with that, we hope the numbers don’t rise again. I expect to see an increase after spring breaks are over.”

Camdenton’s initial guidelines for a safe return to sports and activities involved two phases dubbed, “1A” and “1B.” The first phase is in effect if the school district determines there are no needs for any restrictions and the second involved a number of restrictions the school district began with. 

In “1B,” seats were marked to allow for social distancing, masks were required for entry and movement within a venue and vouchers were issued in order for fans to purchase a limited number of tickets. At the same time, games have been streamed for those unable to be in attendance. At any event, food and drinks were pre-packaged and spectators were not allowed to gather and greet athletes before or after any games. 

Over the course of the winter with indoor events, the school district maintained its 50 percent capacity restriction but attendance did not need to be restricted for any events in a gym that could hold 1,000 people. With the transition to spring and most activities taking place outside, things are looking up. 

“We expect to retain our mask requirement for the spring, but do not think any attendance restrictions will be needed,” Camdenton Activities Director Bill Kurtz said. “We will follow any recommendations the local health department makes.” 

Like other schools in the area, Climax Springs powered through the fall upon the recommendations of the health department and masks were encouraged when social distancing could not be maintained. Attendance was not restricted, but a mask mandate went into effect after Thanksgiving break and stayed in place through the conclusion of the winter sports season. With a return to the outdoors, it has been lifted. 

“Since our spring sports season is an outdoor season, fans will not have to be masked,” Climax Springs Activities Director Misti Maples said as the school looks forward to the return of a baseball and track and field season. 

A similar approach was in place for Macks Creek where the only restrictions in effect were for indoor activities. Temperature checks were taken for entry into an event, people were asked to wear masks when moving throughout the venue and visiting fans were asked to sit in a separate area from Macks Creek fans during basketball games. Masks could be removed when individuals were seated and they were encouraged to sit together in socially distant groups. Overall, there were no capacity limits in place and the move to spring sports and activities allows for less restrictions. 

“We don’t believe there is as great a risk as our indoor venues and for this reason, we will not have temperature checks or ask folks to wear masks,” Macks Creek Superintendent Dr. Josh Phillips noted. “In regards to restrictions at future basketball games, we will revisit our COVID-19 operating plan again this summer as we plan for junior high basketball in the fall. It is our hope that by the start of next school year, we won’t have to put any of these measures in place and will return to a sense of normalcy.”

OSAGE AND ELDON (MILLER COUNTY)

Things once looked considerably different last fall when the School of the Osage football team placed lily pads on their sideline in the first game of the season that had numbers on them coinciding with a player’s number to keep water bottles distanced and isolated. Masks became part of the norm, spectators initially had to bring in their own snacks and drinks and people were encouraged to sit in “family pods.” 

Eldon had some strict protocols in place as well, having to eventually limit attendance at indoor events starting November 30. Category one, where the school district started on that date, limited events to 15 percent capacity with two tickets being afforded to each person involved. Category two allowed for 25 percent attendance and some participants the opportunity to give out as many as four tickets while up to 40 students were also allowed to attend. Finally, category three allowed for 50 percent capacity with as many as eight tickets being afforded to some participants and the attendance of 80 students and 80 members of the community.

During these restrictive times, both school districts continued to livestream as many events as possible for those unable to attend. Both districts were also pretty happy to hear that Miller County announced the transition to category three in February, removing all restrictions on the number of people able to attend any event. 

“We ask that patrons please maintain their distance while in attendance and we will continue to livestream all home events,” Eldon Superintendent Matt Davis said of the change. “We are excited for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play in front of crowds.” 

At Osage, the only guidelines currently in place for all home events is that a face covering is worn when social distancing is impossible.

VERSAILLES (MORGAN COUNTY)

Versailles began the school year without restrictions on the number of spectators allowed at a home event, but guidelines were in place for concession stand lines, bathroom lines and the front gates and masks were highly encouraged. Like other districts, all home events were streamed for fans unable to attend. 

Fast forward to the spring and restrictions can be eased with case numbers staying low, according to the Morgan County Health Department. 

“We had a talk with our local health department and thought this spring would be a good time to loosen up some limitations we have,” Versailles Activities Director Kyle Middleton said. “We usually do not make any decision like this without the health department’s guidance.” 

Morgan County Health Center Administrator Shawn Brantley, who also serves as the head coach of the wrestling program at Versailles, said the combination of low case numbers and more vaccinations have made a difference. 

“When you combine those things with the switch to a spring sports season where everyone is outside and, can in theory, distance themselves  easier, it is a good time to ease back on restrictions,” he pointed out. “We will continue to closely monitor our numbers for any upswing in cases. if that should happen, I will have a discussion with school administration about how to proceed.” 

Things may not look exactly as they did before the era of COVID-19 was ushered in a year ago, but school districts have been inching closer back to that sense of normalcy and that itself may be considered a victory after so much was previously lost.