As sports resume following the holiday break this week, KSHSAA, administrators and coaches are bracing for a long stay in the trenches dug by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resumption comes after an extended winter moratorium for activities imposed by KSHSAA, one of the many measures passed to try and fight the virus.
That extended break was a much-needed one by many.
“It was really critical this year,” said Mike Kastle, a KSHSAA Executive Board member who also serves on the Parsons USD 503 board and as commissioner of the Three Rivers League.
“Expanding the moratorium to two weeks gave everybody a chance to take a deep breath. It’s a long haul now and we know what’s coming.”
Debates on fan restrictions, health protocols and other mitigation strategies aside, what’s become clear is that the appetite to resume sports will prevail over almost any recommendation to press the pause button.
“I think the attitude is push on through absent the governor telling us to shut down,” Kastle said. “The way things are running right now, I can’t see anything other than that happening.”
Case numbers in Kansas have trended downward slightly over the last month-and-a-half. After a November spike that reached as high as 3,849 cases on Nov. 9, there were 2,115 cases reported on Dec. 29. The positivity rate also dipped slightly from 16.9% in November to 12.2% in December.
“We’re continuing to monitor all those rates,” KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick said. “We believe that we can have our winter activities if there’s not a significant change. We need folks to continue to do their part.”
A collective breath hold until the middle of January is now underway. Come Jan. 15, two weeks after New Years Day, the state will know how adequately the populous avoided mass gatherings over the break.
“That’s a really critical time to see what’s happening,” Kastle said. “As long as those numbers stay steady, we’re in good shape I think. But the numbers will probably spike. I’m hoping we don’t spike big.
“It’s just the concern that this darn virus is going to jump on another ugly cycle. We have hot spots and cold spots in the state. If that continues, I think we’ll be fine. But if it gets hot across the state, I’ll be concerned.”
School sports in Kansas had a rocky start to the winter season. Games were postponed and canceled at a blistering pace as teams were placed into quarantines.
“We had a lot of schools with kids that didn’t go out because of COVID,” Kastle said. “So quarantines are hitting these teams. I’m having a lot of cancellations and games to fill. Smaller numbers at smaller schools and with kids not going out, it’s a big issue.”
A byproduct of trying to reschedule games has been a strain on finding officials.
League commissioners and other administrators are extending their geographical reach and giving newer refs varsity assignments to make up the gap.
“I’ve had over 20 officials who normally work at the varsity level not working this year,” Kastle said. “I’m bringing people in from north into this area and I’m trying to prepare less experienced officials for the varsity level. We’re having to do a lot more of that as we move through the season.”
Adherence to health protocols is a top concern for officials across Kansas.
“Our numbers are down and we need our officials to stay healthy,” Faflick said. “We won’t be able to have postseason tournaments without healthy officials that want to work. Those are folks that aren’t the youngest crowd. They need to feel like the protocols are in place.”
The most contentious protocol KSHSAA instituted was the restriction on spectators. After a week of barring all fans from attending events statewide in early December, the association changed course and allowed two parents in per participant.
That restriction expires on Jan. 28 and will likely revert back to local control.
“At this point, we’ve not talked about extending that restriction and I don’t anticipate a request to do so,” Faflick said. “Our goal has been to dial it back up after we dialed it down. That’ll be beyond the two weeks after the holiday, so our schools can be prepared to make plans regarding capacity.”
However, restrictions on fans is expected to be implemented by KSHSAA for state tournaments for the winter season.
Brent Unruh, the KSHSAA office operations manager who serves as a liaison to the association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, said that testing of student-athletes and staff for COVID-19 upon arrival to state tournaments isn’t on the table.
“As of now, we’re not considering testing the student-athletes,” Unruh said. “It’s not feasible to do with the numbers that would have to be tested, along with the fact that they’re minors. That might change down the road, but right now that’s not in the plans.”
“It would be a significant challenge, especially in more rural areas where testing is not as accessible at low-to-no cost,” Faflick added. “The self-checks every day are so important. If you have a fever or a cough, stay home. Those are the things that haven’t changed from the beginning because they’re indicators.”
As hard as sports in Kansas were hit by the pandemic prior to winter break, so was the state as a whole. Kansas had among the highest positivity rates in the nation at the end of 2020.
“What keeps me up at night, every night, is student health, safety and issues related to that,” Faflick said. “It’s a balance to provide activities to benefit in the right environment. We know activities are good for kids. But what is the risk in terms of schools to stay open and stay functioning? We don’t want activities to be the reason that teachers can’t teach their kids face-to-face.”
Just prior to the holiday break, a story in USA Today highlighted the town of Quinter and Gove County as the deadliest place in America for COVID-19.
“I bet that Quinter didn’t (follow the guidelines),” Faflick said. “I think the perspective changes when you go through it. But we don’t want to have that experience for any of our communities in Kansas.”
With the state coming off a breather during the holidays, there is a renewed impetus on health guidelines.
“The most important thing moving forward is whether or not our schools are willing to make the sacrifices to do the right thing,” Unruh said. “Are we going to make sure we’re all wearing masks even if a community isn’t hit hard? Are fans going to follow the protocols? If we all do the right thing, then we have a really good shot of getting through it.”
The KSHSAA Executive Board will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the early prospects of spring sports. Changes have already been made to winter postseasons.
Kansas is back to fighting for the preservation of sports.
“We’re not done with COVID,” Faflick said. “There’s no magic pill because we’re in 2021. We have to be as vigilant, if not more vigilant than before.”