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Are we staring down another lost season with a cancellation of fall sports or will summer workouts go on as planned?
The Kansas State High School Activities Association is preparing for both possibilities, as well as every possibility in between, as it strategizes the resumption of athletics in the state.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced sports at all levels nationwide to come to a halt. The KSHSAA canceled the state basketball tournaments after the quarterfinal rounds on March 12, the same day Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency.
High school sports in Kansas never resumed. Six days after the state basketball tournaments were called off and one day after Kelly closed all schools for the rest of the academic year, the KSHSAA canceled all spring sports.
Since then, the coronavirus crisis has only swelled. Kelly issued a statewide stay-at-home order that was extended to May 3. At the time of publication, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 1,705 cases of COVID-19 within Kansas, including 84 deaths.
We’re deep into the woods of a global pandemic. The return of sports is more of an ambiguous desire than a clear-cut plan being enacted.
But the KSHSAA is being proactive in preparing for the eventual resumption of sports.
The association is currently drawing up numerous contingency plans for how and when athletics and other activities can resume. Each plan being ironed out is dependent on when athletics can resume.
“The bottom line is that we can’t do the how without knowing when we can go back,” said KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick. “We have contingency plans being developed. A June plan gives us a pretty normal summer. But you can’t separate the when from the how. If the when is June 1, it’s a lot different than if it’s July 1 or Sept. 1.”
Determining when athletics can resume is beholden to a variety of factors, many outside of KSHSAA control and jurisdiction.
The first and only true factor is the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly has said that she expects the peak number of cases in Kansas to hit between April 19-29. After the peak, Kelly said the state would need to see a 14-day reduction in cases of COVID-19 before social distancing restrictions could be relaxed.
If the peak happens at the end of April and lasts several weeks before the two-week reduction period, that runs the calendar right up to the line of June 1. The start of June is when KSHSAA normally begins its summer schedule.
A proverbial green light that the KSHSAA is waiting on to resume activities is the reopening of schools.
“We’re paying attention to what the Kansas State Department of Education is going through,” Faflick said. “We’re monitoring the KDHE and CDC guidelines, but that’s not from an advocacy standpoint. We have to be responsible and do things in a way that support best practice for all of Kansas and all of our country.”
Faflick added that he doesn’t view the eventual resumption of athletics as a green light where every school will be off to the races with workouts.
“We know that eventually we’ll return to normal. But that’s more of a dial than a switch,” Faflick said. “We’ll turn it a notch and go from there. It’s a gradual progression back to the resumption of activities. The first step will be figuring out when facilities will be open and when kids will be healthy and available to come back into group settings. Obviously there will have to be some relaxation of the social distancing, because you don’t do sports from a distance.”
Another issue the KSHSAA is planning to address is the matter of student-athlete physicals. Normally issued in the fall, a physical clears a student-athlete through the school year and ensuing summer. But if fall sports approach — Aug. 17 is the scheduled date for the first day of practice — and restrictions haven’t subsided, obtaining physicals may prove difficult. Hospitals and healthcare centers around the nation have suspended elective procedures as a measure to prevent overwhelming the system through the pandemic.
“Physicals are the biggest thing,” said Mike Kastle, a member of the KSHSAA Executive Board as well as a USD 503 board member in Parsons. “Are we going to let kids play with physicals from last year? A lot of hospitals probably won’t be able to give physicals. I’m sure we’ll get advice on that.”
Rushing kids back after months of quarantine is another area of concern. While coaches across the state have sent workouts to student-athletes through the stoppage, it’s a reality that a majority of athletes will return to play significantly out of shape.
“If we have a shortened summer, we have to realize we can’t cram everything,” Faflick said. “We’ll take great guidance from our sports medicine advisory committee with return-to-play and return-to-practice guidelines. We also don’t want coaches fighting over kids and be in a tug-of-war. It wouldn’t be good for the kids mentally and physically.”
The KSHSAA is also hoping to enact temporary plans to adjust moratorium periods in the summer that restrict when athletes can work out.
“If it’s safe, we’ll give it a high priority,” Kastle said. “I would not be surprised to see us loosen up the rules for summer. We can let coaches work with kids a little more to help them get into participation shape.”
While the KSHSAA is hopeful that it can get athletics rolling again in the summer, the threat of fall sports being affected looms in the background.
Faflick said that among the association’s many contingency plans, shortening or canceling the fall season is a possibility that is dependent on the course of the pandemic.
“That’s part of the discussions that we’ve had,” Faflick said. “But three months out, that’s not typically a decision we generally make. It’s impossible to speculate. Have we talked about what happens if we don’t have fall? You bet.
“We’re planning to have summer right now. In the fall, it may be a shortened season. There may have to be an adjustments to protocol. But our focus is just getting kids back to practice. It’ll be a decision made down the road.”
Deena Horst, a KSBE representative on the KSHSAA Executive Board, said a fall season without fans is a possibility.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to be back to a somewhat normal fall schedule,” Horst said. “But it also may mean that there may be limited fan support. We may be playing games without fans in the stands. Or we may need to space fans out to an extent where you’re only able to accommodate parents and guardians. In our mind, we have to be prepared for that possibility.”
However, many fall sports present challenges to maintaining any sort of gathering restrictions even without fans. Players, coaches, officials and game personnel alone at any given football game amount to at least 50 people at the lowest classifications. Volleyball tournaments and cross country meets with a dozen or more schools bring in hundreds of student-athletes.
“It would be heartbreaking if we have to (cancel fall sports),” Kastle said. “If nothing else, I hope we can have a shortened season. Maybe a five-game football season, four or five cross country meets, 25 games for volleyball. I know how the spring sports kids feel. I don’t want to lose another season. But we’re at the mercy of this virus. We’ll do what’s best for people.”
Faflick and the KSHSAA administration will present its contingency plans during its online Board of Directors meeting scheduled for May 1.
“We’re pointing towards our board of directors meeting. We have things in rules from summer moratoriums and other things that need to be evaluated and not be obstacles to the resumption of interscholastic activities. We’ll have better guidance after that meeting,” Faflick said.
“My gut feeling is that we’ll stay the course,” Kastle added. “We’re two weeks away from the board meeting. I don’t see the governor lifting the restrictions by then. So we’ll look at our options so we’re ready to go when the bans are lifted.”
Kansas was the first state in the country to close schools for the rest of the academic year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so expect a similarly cautious approach when it comes to resuming athletics.
“One of the other things we need to keep in mind is that we need to be proactive rather than reactive,” Horst said. “I think it’s a fair statement that we know more than we did. But we still don’t know enough about this virus to be really comfortable.
“You’ll see us be rather cautious in how we move forward, because we’re dealing with a precious commodity. These are our children and our grandchildren. There’s nothing I will do to compromise their ability to become healthy adults.”
Ultimately, like the rest of the nation, the KSHSAA is at the mercy of the coronavirus. The association will wait for the state to open schools, which could happen on a county-by-county basis, before enacting any plans for resuming activities.
“We focus on kids and helping kids grow and learn,” Faflick said. “We know this will end. We’ll get back to seeing kids compete and grow through their programs. Right now, we’re trying to help them through a difficult time. We know how important these activities are. We hate that the kids don’t get to participate.”