An on-time start for fall sports and activities was green lit by the Kansas State High School Activities Association on Tuesday. Now, school administrators across the state are scrambling to prepare for a season that will have vastly different optics than year’s past as schools try to preserve sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
KSHSAA released its health considerations for each sport, with the basic theme being frequent sanitation, mask-wearing and social distancing being practiced whenever possible. The association made clear that students directly participating in an activity are not required to wear masks.
“I look at area schools and schools across the state,” said Cherryvale High School Athletic Director Rodney Vigil. “We’ve all been implementing the same philosophies. We’ve all been practicing guidelines with summer weights. Now we’ve got to implement those KSHSAA considerations. A lot of them are doable.
“People are under the perception that you have to play with a mask on. Really, we’re just trying to limit contacts. We can do a lot of that with social distancing.”
The litany of issues being addressed by school districts include fan attendance at events, implementation and practice of health guidelines as well as whether or not students enrolled in online learning will be allowed to participate.
KSHSAA passed a measure that students enrolled in online or distance learning are eligible for activities, but a school district reserves the right to override that rule.
Cherryvale USD 447 took that action when it delayed the start of the school year until Sept. 1. There, any student who elects to enroll in remote learning rather than attending classes on campus will not be eligible for sports or other activities.
“That’s the opinion our board voted on the other night,” Vigil said. “We don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to come to school all day then participate in activities.”
Chetopa-St. Paul USD 505 Superintendent Craig Bagshaw said his district hasn’t yet made a ruling on the issue of eligibility for remote learning students.
“It’s almost on a case-by-case basis that we’ll look at that,” Bagshaw said. “It could vary activity. I have a hard time understanding why a person may want to stay home but then be on a volleyball team with 30 girls and go to a competition.”
Parsons USD 503 is starting its school year on Aug. 26 with all students starting with remote learning for at least the first two weeks. It’s expected that the district will allow sports and activities to continue through the online learning period.
“I think since we’re going to start where we’ll be remote, I think in the first semester we should allow kids to be eligible if they’re enrolled remotely,” Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus said. “With that two week start, I don’t think it’s fair if a kid is doing well to tell them they have to come to school in-person. Hopefully they would be eligible.”
Labette County USD 506 will offer its high school students three different learning models, with one being exclusively remote. All students, regardless of their model, will be eligible for activities.
“If they’re enrolled in our school, they’re eligible,” Labette County High School Principal Shane Holtzman said. “Part of that is we don’t want to discourage a parent from choosing remote learning.”
On the issue of fan attendance, schools are brainstorming various solutions. At Labette County, Holtzman said for football games that the student section will likely move down to the track and the band seated behind an end zone to promote social distancing.
“We’re looking at social distancing our fans,” Wyrick said. “We can put our student section on the track, put our band behind the end zone. We’re going to try to do everything to keep that Friday night experience.”
Barcus, along with Parsons High School Principal Eric Swanson, spent time in the school gym as well as at the football field to come up with ideas regarding fans.
“You can picture something in your head, but it’s better to physically view it,” Barcus said. “If we’re going to have a crowd, we want to know how we can limit the crowd. We want to separate visiting fans from our fans.”
Mask-wearing will be a popular enforcement mechanism for schools to require of fans, which aligns with considerations from KSHSAA.
“We’re going to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing,” Barcus said. “We’ll ask people to come with family. If we have a row marked off, we expect families to socially distance from one another. The student section might look a little different. In volleyball, we may add some chairs to the mezzanine and other baseline to allow for some distance.”
Labette County Superintendent John Wyrick said that mask-wearing will be required of students participating in activities as often as necessary.
“We’ll require our students when they show up for games to wear a mask,” Wyrick said. “We know the masks help if both parties have them on. We’ll follow Governor Kelly’s executive order as best we can. That means it’ll extend to extracurricular activities.”
The preservation of the fall season is the end goal for districts that will encourage mask-wearing from its fans.
“We’ll let them know that these activities will cease if we’re not as safe as possible, so we want to follow the recommendations of local health officials,” Bagshaw said.
Bagshaw is looking into producing online livestreams of every activity, ranging from football to middle school volleyball, to give fans the option to watch their kids without gathering in person.
“We think live streaming even a middle school volleyball game would be a great benefit,” Bagshaw said. “If you’re a grandparent and have COPD, do you really want to go out? Well, they don’t want to miss their grandchild’s activity. We want to provide as many options as we can. That’s our responsibility.”
Bagshaw added that limiting fan attendance to immediate family members is also being considered.
“Your attendance of spectators will be different at a football game than a middle school or high school volleyball game,” Bagshaw said. “We’ve considered maybe limiting it to immediate family being allowed to attend.”
Even the smallest details, such as concessions and admissions, are being taken into account.
“We can make areas with assigned seating and separate the crowds based on teams,” Bagshaw said. “We’re going to discuss whether we even take our dollar for admission. Maybe we’ll make it an at-will donation so we don’t need to expose a worker handling money.”
The health considerations from KSHSAA are extensive and cover nearly 60 pages of two documents. While they are not mandates, each school district seems to be intent on following them as best as possible.
“As long as it doesn’t pertain to additional personnel, I expect my coaches to follow those guidelines to the letter,” Barcus said. “I expect volleyball to practice in small groups. In football, I expect to see fewer contact drills. If the guidelines say to wear a mask, they’ll wear a mask.”
Some schools will lack the infrastructure, manpower or other resources to fully implement every consideration.
“What (KSHSAA is) trying to do is give you an avenue on how to think,” Bagshaw said. “It’s not feasible for me to have multiple locker rooms for officials in our district. We’ll take those considerations and adjust them to our environment. But we’ll do everything we can to have the safest activities as we can.”
Barcus expects the students to be among the most willing to adapt to continued modifications amid the pandemic.
“Our athletes know what to expect in terms of wearing the mask and social distancing,” Barcus said, “with what they did over the summer. Now when someone scores that first touchdown in the first game, how do you tell kids you can’t high-five him? That’ll be the hardest thing.”
Part of the process for preparing for fall sports will be meetings between administrators within leagues collaborating on issues of scheduling and health protocol.
“As leagues, we’ll have to come together with issues of scheduling and all the other variables of safety and transportation,” Vigil said.
School boards and administrators will continue to hammer away at preparations for fall sports and activities in the coming weeks. The biggest unanswered questions surround the concept of what happens if and when a student-athlete contracts a case of COVID-19. Those answers will come from local health departments.
With KSHSAA giving the go-ahead to have fall sports, the dash to prepare for a season that starts its practices on Aug. 17 is in full swing.