On Monday, practices for fall sports in Kansas will commence across the state in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

KSHSAA has ruled that sports will start on time this fall. However, some school districts have put the brakes on. 

Wyandotte County, where Kansas City is located, canceled all fall sports for its public schools.

The Olathe Board of Education adopted the Johnson County Gating Plan, which restricts high-risk sports such as football to no competition or group travel. So for now, football is on hold there.

Cases of COVID-19 are trending slowly downward in Kansas. July 6 saw the state’s record number of cases with 576 reported, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. A month later, Aug. 6, the daily case count dropped to 331. That number is slightly below the peaks seen during the initial spike of the pandemic in late April.

In Southeast Kansas, where the virus isn’t as prevalent as larger metro areas, schools largely are ready to start sports while implementing as many of KSHSAA’s health guidelines as possible.

The reality is that cases of COVID-19 will pop up as a result of schools reopening and sports starting back up. There will be teams that have to cancel games because of an outbreak.

For those that want sports to press on through the risk, from fans to coaches to players and administrators, sacrifices are commanded to ensure safety.

Keith Wiatrak, the head football coach at St. Paul High School, said the Three Rivers League will enforce mask-wearing and social distancing at all events.

“If you show up without a mask, we won’t let you in,” Wiatrak said. “And we’ll have people walking around and if they see someone without a mask, they’ll be asked to leave.” 

A common thread among administrators is that they don’t want to be the “mask police.” Mask-wearing is, for reasons that are silly when exposed to any level of scrutiny, divisive. It’s natural for school leaders to not want to rub certain parents or families the wrong way.

But what’s easiest and what’s right often vary drastically.

Limiting crowds, enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing and other measures designed with safety in mind are necessary. If a fan wants to supersede safety because of fringe beliefs, schools shouldn’t be afraid to bar them from facilities. It’s what’s best for the kids.

Sports and activities provide opportunities to kids that otherwise lack a true connection to their community. Sports push kids to graduate and find their way.

That’s why there’s a consensus that the risk associated with holding sports in communities where there isn’t massive community spread of the coronavirus is worth accepting. 

KSHSAA cited a study from the University of Wisconsin that showed the detrimental effects on the mental health of teenagers that suffered the loss of activities in the spring.

That’s why the association came up with guidelines for every activity to safely take place this fall. It’s why the state wants to push forward.

Trudging ahead with sports will require some difficult, perhaps unpopular, choices.

There will be school districts that don’t enforce health protocol for student-athletes or fans. Other schools need to truly consider whether or not playing those schools is what’s safest for their communities. If that means putting a forfeit loss on their record, so be it. 

Butler County is recommending that its school districts limit fan attendance to two spectators per athlete. If you’re a fan who simply wants to attend a Friday night football game or Tuesday evening volleyball match and you don’t have a child playing, make the choice to stay home instead.

Schools across the state increasingly have online live-streaming options to watch games. That solution will be even more prevalent this fall as schools search for solutions to restrict crowd sizes.

Among the most resilient groups in the state are the kids themselves. At the 2020 Shrine Bowl in Topeka, daily temperature checks and strictly-enforced mask-wearing was part of the protocol in the week of practice leading up to the game.

At the game itself, every single attendee from fans to players to staff were temperature checked. There were signs reminding everybody of the mask-wearing requirement. Announcements were made frequently to remind fans to put their masks on.

The result was a game with 1,700 fans that didn’t result in a cluster of COVID-19 cases. 

“It was absolutely necessary and 150% the right call,” said Adam Albertini, who represented St. Paul in the Shrine Bowl. “We should be wearing masks. To say the restrictions impacted the game would be a lie. To say they impacted practice would be a lie. At the end of the day, you’re still playing football. Anybody who says the mask impacts that, well that’s nonsense.” 

Outbreaks will inevitably happen. But they can be mitigated and stymied if teams and communities follow health guidelines. 

Ask any coach. Ask any student. They want sports back. It’s a craving that has been largely unsatisfied since mid-March.

They’ll also tell you that they’ll do whatever it takes to preserve a safe, complete season.

“We can only control what we can control,” Parsons High School football head coach Jeff Schibi said. “So we’re going to whatever we can to keep our kids safe. I hope other coaches do the same. We have a strict protocol we’re going to follow. We’re going to do whatever we can.” 

It’s time for all us, from administrators to parents, to follow their lead and do whatever it takes. This fall, and let’s face it, the winter and spring too, will be a fight to preserve opportunities. 

The viability of keeping kids on the field and court comes down to you. 

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