Pathways guiding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the continuation of high school sports this winter will collide on Tuesday when the KSHSAA Board of Directors will vote on whether or not to delay the season.
KSHSAA’s Executive Board approved a proposal that would delay the start of winter sports, including basketball, wrestling, boys swimming and diving and bowling, to at least Jan. 15. That measure is the headliner on a number of measures that will either be ratified or voted down by the board of directors, which includes representatives from every league in the state.
The board of directors held a series of preliminary meetings on Friday in preparation of Tuesday’s vote. One common theme? There are valid arguments both in favor of and in opposition to delaying the winter season.
“This is going to be a tough one,” said Oswego High School Principal Rob Schneeberger, who represents the Three Rivers League.
“It’s an emotionally charged question. All schools will tell you how important activities are. But this involves COVID. You’ve got two very valid arguments fighting each other as to how to address one another and continue to move forward.”
Just over a week ago, KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick told the Sun that the association is monitoring a litany of factors with the pandemic as it assessed the viability of winter sports. Among those factors included positivity rates of testing as well as hospital capacities.
According to the Kansas Hospital Association, 1,120 suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in Kansas. 111 of them are on ventilators. In the state, 37% of all available beds and just 16% of ICU beds are currently available.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reports that in November, the state has maintained a positivity rate of 19.3%, 6% higher than the next-highest peak back in April.
“They’ll be a factor,” said Mike Kastle, a KSHSAA Executive Board and USD 503 Parsons board member. “That’s probably about 25 to 30% of my decision making. But my email inbox is almost full. At noon on Friday, I had 186 emails saying to vote no and six to vote yes. I’m sure those folks who want us to vote no are very passionate.”
Including in Kastle’s inbox was a message from USD 250 Pittsburg board member Ed McKechnie, who previously served as the chair of the Kansas Board of Regents.
Back in August there was tremendous fear about the spread of COVID and that we would not be able to play football,” McKechnie wrote. “As I understand it, there were no athlete to athlete transmissions of COVID during the football season and most schools were able to complete at least a portion of the season if not completing the season in total. Along the way we learned how to feed kids, make sure they had water, and we kept them safe, supervised and active during a difficult and dramatic time in our nation’s history.”
While COVID-19 is surging in Kansas, there’s evidence that schools and athletics aren’t to blame nearly as much as other facets of society.
Out of the nearly 22,000 reported cases of the coronavirus in Kansas since the pandemic’s outbreak, schools and sports combined have accounted for 1,307 cases and two deaths according to KDHE data.
“Here in Parsons, none of our cases have come from activities,” Kastle said. “We haven’t had transmission in schools. A lot of schools around the state report the same thing.”
Labette County High School Principal Shane Holtzman, who represents the SEK League on the KSHSAA Board of Directors, will not vote in favor of delaying the season nor for extending the winter moratorium.
“None of the league schools were in favor of postponing the season,” Holtzman said. “None of them were in favor of extending the winter moratorium. Limiting fans is the only one that schools felt was viable for this area.”
A statewide standard on limiting or eliminating fans is gaining momentum.
“It’s something we’re open to,” Holtzman said. “To me, that’s a good compromise from postponing the season to January. To have competitions without fans, that could go into effect statewide.”
Tuesday’s vote, as of now, will formally be on these proposals regarding sports:
Extend winter moratorium to from Dec. 23-Jan. 3.
Delay start of high school winter sports competitions until Jan. 15.
Restrict middle school winter sports competitions between Dec. 1-Jan. 14.
No fans at high school sports from Jan. 15-28.
No more than two fans per participant at high school sports from Jan. 15-28.
Limited fan attendance at high school winter sports events from Jan. 29 until end of season.
Enforced mask-wearing of all participants, staff and fans with the only exception being athletes and officials during active play.
No large tournaments for any winter sports.
Reducing basketball regular season to 13 games.
Reducing boys swimming and diving regular season to six competitions.
Reducing wrestling regular season to 20 competition points.
Reduce the number of competition days for bowling to eight.
There’s a growing belief that somebody on the board of directors will make a motion to either bar or limit fans across Kansas but allow winter sports to start on time. Who would make that motion is, for now, a mystery.
“If I had to guess, the consensus around the state is that (the delay is) not going to pass. A lot of people aren’t in favor of it,” Holtzman said. “I feel like there’s some support at the superintendent and board of education level, and that can change a lot of votes. But I don’t think it’ll pass in the form that’s written now.”
KSHSAA is staunchly opposed to carving into the spring sports calendar to make way for winter. Spring sports saw a full cancellation last spring.
Kastle indicated that KSHSAA may move to slide both winter and spring sports seasons back on the calendar.
“We want to preserve that spring sports season if at all possible,” Kastle said. “There was discussion about extending basketball and winter sports for a couple weeks. Then we could extend the spring season into June. It’s something we’ll look at on the Executive Board here within a week or two.”
KSHSAA board members have found unity on one issue — enforced mask-wearing.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a new mask mandate that goes into effect on Nov. 25. While county commissions and city governments across the state have often scoffed and overridden Kelly’s orders through the pandemic, schools have largely stayed on her side.
“This would make it pretty uniform across the state,” Schneeberger said, “that says if there’s fans there, they’ll have face masks.”
While it seems that a majority of directors will vote against delaying the winter sports season, Kastle still expects the vote to be close.
“Maybe 45-55% one way or the other,” Kastle said. “I think it’ll be a very close vote. On the Executive Board, we never really said how we felt about it other than we felt like it should be a Board of Directors issue.”
There is still no unification on exactly how winter sports will look this season.
“It’s not a consensus,” Schneeberger said. “Just about everybody, with their preference or non-preference as schools, has comments on what amendments and discussions to take place.”
That’s why Kastle wants Tuesday’s meeting to go as long as possible with as much discussion as necessary.
“Tune in Tuesday and watch,” Kastle said. “I certainly hope that we have folks that will speak up and talk. We’ve all got to be engaged. You may say something that makes me change my mind or reinforce how I feel. I hope everybody gets engaged and I hope it’s a long meeting.”