As Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order requiring mask-wearing by Kansans goes into effect on Friday, schools are gearing up to adhere to the mandate with workouts.

Kelly signed her executive order on Thursday morning in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order requires Kansans to wear masks indoors as well as outdoors where social distancing cannot be maintained.

A key exception in the executive order states that mask-wearing is not required for “athletes who are engaged in an organized sports activity that allows an athlete to maintain a six-foot distance from others with only infrequent or incidental moments of closer proximity.” 

Outdoor workouts, workouts in a gym and live non-contact sports seem to fit within that exemption, while weight sessions that require spotters and live contact sports do not.

Kansas State High School Activities Association Executive Director Bill Faflick advocates for universal mask-wearing and says the association supports the order.

“We support universal masking. It is important for us to take every precaution now to mitigate risk of COVID-19 so that we have the best possible chance to resume school with the healthiest student and staff population possible. We all have a responsibility to do that now,” Faflick said. 

Counties’ interpretations and adherence to the executive order will vary across the state and put different limitations on schools.

By and large, schools are gearing up to modify workout plans to allow for more social distancing while reducing the workload student-athletes endure. Student-athletes participating in weight room workouts will likely be made to wear masks. 

“In the weight room, we’ll wear masks,” said Cherryvale High School Athletic Director and boys basketball head coach Rodney Vigil. “A lot of our summer conditioning is outdoors where we can maintain social distancing. But indoors, whether it’s open gym or weights, we’ll start off wearing masks. That might be our new norm.” 

At Cherryvale, volleyball head coach Aimee Strickland also serves as the school nurse. Strickland is in favor of Kelly’s order requiring masks to be worn in public.

“It’s definitely about taking care of your neighbor and caring for them,” Strickland said. “If you and I wear a mask and I’m a carrier that’s asymptomatic, the droplets will stay in the mask. Then with your mask, there’s even less of a chance for the virus to get in. If I’m asymptomatic and not wearing a mask, the chances are way higher of you getting the virus.” 

At Parsons High School, football head coach and weights instructor Jeff Schibi will essentially reset the summer weight program.

“It’s similar to how we started the summer this year with an acclimation period,” Schibi said. “I’ll allow the kids to have an acclimation period with the mask.” 

Concerns with athletes undergoing physical exertion are being taken into account by coaches and administrators.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Schibi said. “We’re still planning on doing weights and conditioning. But there will be a lot of strategies to make sure the kids are safe and healthy while wearing the mask. We want kids to get the adequate oxygen level. When you’re exerting yourself, you’re gasping for extra breath. A mask will take a different toll.

“I’ve got to watch each and every kid and see how they react to it. Next week, we’ll have light reps and light weight to make sure the kids adjust to it.”

Getting student-athletes acclimated to mask-wearing is the next priority for coaches.

“If we’re doing sprints or conditioning, we’ll try to maintain social distancing,” Strickland said. “We’re prepared to move the majority of our stuff outside. I told our kids to be prepared to wear masks regardless of how we feel about it. If we need to make modifications to our workouts, we’ll figure all that out.” 

Vigil is exploring the possibility of holding basketball workouts outdoors. He also is considering breaking up groups of student-athletes into smaller numbers with more sessions to promote social distancing.

“That’s what we’ll lean towards,” Vigil said. “As a basketball coach, I’ll move some of them outdoors. We have three full courts outside at our elementary school. If you bring kids into the gym, we’re looking at bringing in smaller numbers over more sessions. We’ll have to be creative with what we do for the remainder of the summer.” 

School administrators are also awaiting word from their respective counties on how to adhere to Kelly’s executive order. 

“We’re waiting for some guidance from the county,” said Labette County High School Athletic Director and football head coach Sean Price. “If we don’t have any guidance, we’ll follow the recommendations from the governor until we get told differently.

“Our plan is to wear masks. We know coaches will make the right decisions for kids.” 

Local youth sports leagues are also adapting to the governor’s mask-wearing order. Parsons Babe Ruth League President John Rexwinkle said that his league will no longer sell sunflower seeds or allow players to eat them while also mandating that players either social distance along the field or wear masks in the dugout.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all order,” Rexwinkle said. “We’ll adhere to the order. We typically don’t have crowds of 500 people that you see in larger metropolitan areas. That’s where you see more benefits of a mask. Our crowds are 50 to 100 people that are pretty well spread out. We’ll follow our public health officials’ advice.” 

Cherryvale was one of the schools around the state that was forced to shut down its summer weights program after a staff member contracted COVID-19 two weeks ago.

Vigil credits his school’s reopening protocol, including frequent sanitation and screening of student-athletes, for allowing Cherryvale to resume summer weights after a week-long shutdown.

“It’s all about adaptability,” Vigil said. “I’m proud of our administration, coaching staff and kids. We’ve been able to take the parameters laid upon us and adapt to them. When we had a positive case, because of what we had planned and in place, within 24 hours we had guidance from the county health department. We shut down for about a week and tweaked some things. I’m blessed to be a part of this organization where we’re all working towards the safety of our kids.” 

The ultimate goal for schools and coaches is to continue working towards the prospects of a full fall season of athletics. The mask-wearing executive order is another iteration of that pursuit.

“If we want an inclination of having fall sports, we all better get on the same page,” Vigil said. “Anything we do or support that is going to benefit our kids, school, community and state is what needs to be done.” 

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