Reopening guidelines from the Kansas Recreation and Park Association has provided the clearest timeline for the return of sports since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic within the state.
Released as part of Gov. Laura Kelly’s Phase 2 announcement, the KRPA has guidelines for how nearly every sport can resume in the coming weeks as Kelly’s plan to reopen the economy progresses.
While each sport’s guidelines vary based largely on the level of contact involved, virtually all restrictions on athletics will be lifted when the Phase Out portion of Kelly’s plan is instituted.
The Kansas State High School Activities Association references these guidelines in its continued approach to restarting athletics.
“We have made our member schools aware that they’re available and provide some good ideas,” KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick said. “Our own guidelines are probably a little more restrictive.”
KSHSAA recently instituted its own policies for resuming sports. School districts, with local health department approval, can start holding summer workouts and programs on June 1. There will be a 10-day acclimation period for student-athletes spread out over the first two weeks of activity.
The KRPA parameters provide an even clearer picture of how each individual sport can resume.
“They’re a really good resource and very thorough,” Faflick said. “I like that they go activity by activity.”
With the current trajectory of the coronavirus in Kansas, coupled with the KRPA’s guidelines, Faflick believes KSHSAA is on the path to holding fall sports.
“We believe the progression through the summer will allow for a seamless transition to our fall sports if the local communities support that,” Faflick said. “We feel like the acclimatization process and all the protocol we have will allow activities to resume, and that puts us on a good path to the fall.”
Holding a fall season, from the perspective of high schools, is widely viewed as the goal of the summer protocols.
“That’s absolutely the mission,” Labette County Athletic Director Sean Price said. “We’ve already had a bunch of kids that have lost their spring. Schools and sports go hand-in-hand. It helps motivate our kids in the classroom. Without them, the kids could struggle.”
According to KRPA guidelines, every sport is allowed to have small training groups, controlled camps and controlled practices with the initiation of Phase 2 on Friday.
Non-contact sports such as tennis, golf and gymnastics, as well as baseball and softball, are allowed to have games and tournaments under Phase 2. Those competitions also require sanitation and social distancing guidelines to be maintained.
Starting with Phase 3, which is tentatively scheduled to start on June 8, basketball, volleyball, soccer and ultimate frisbee games and tournaments will be allowed. Football, rugby, field hockey and lacrosse will still be barred from holding games and tournaments until the Phase Out portion begins as early as June 22.
While practices and games for most sports, whether it’s high school athletics or youth leagues, are slowly being allowed to start up, KRPA still has strict health guidelines to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
In general, players will be limited to one spectator in Phase 2 and two in Phase 3 before restrictions on fans are lifted in Phase Out.
KRPA also advises vulnerable portions of the population — the eldery and those with pre-existing conditions that compromise the immune system — to stay home even after spectator restrictions are lifted.
Through Phases 2 and 3, games will be spaced out to prevent an overlap of participants. Sharing equipment is strongly discouraged and game balls should be disinfected. Players in dugouts and on benches will also be socially distanced during games.
Athletics as a whole also will be subjected to mass gathering restrictions. Phase 2 allows for 15 people while Phase 3 allows for 45.
Parsons Babe Ruth League President John Rexwinkle said the KRPA guidelines give the clearest sense of how leagues and athletics can operate in the coming weeks.
“I think more than anything it gives the public confidence that we’re following the guidelines,” Rexwinkle said. “It gives us as a league a framework to operate in as far as concessions, spectators and restrooms. We can start making plans based on the phases.
“We could come up with our own guidelines. But it’s better now to be able to cite these guidelines to prove to the public that what we’re doing is safe. We have people in public health that have spent their careers coming up with these guidelines.”
Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus echoed Rexwinkle’s sentiment.
“That’s very encouraging that there’s actual guidelines now,” Barcus said. “It gives the schools a little more clarity to work with. We know what the state is allowing us to do and we don’t have to make those decisions on our own.”
Many youth leagues in Kansas have already canceled seasons this summer with safety and low registration numbers being among the chief concerns.
The Parsons Babe Ruth League intends to have a season with practices starting in early June and games starting in mid-June if Kelly’s plan remains on its current timeline.
“Best case scenario, we’ll get to play baseball this year,” Rexwinkle said. “But it’s going to feel different. With that being said, the positives outweigh the negatives. We want the kids to have a return to normalcy.”
Rexwinkle, who also works at Labette Health, added that enforcement of safety protocols will fall largely on coaches and umpires.
“We have to rely on the coaches and umpires and parents,” Rexwinkle said. “We’ll set the expectations to the coaches as to what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. We’ll have somebody from the league walking around to remind people to keep their spacing. It won’t require an extraordinary amount of resources as much as it will require discipline.”
Contact tracing is another area the KRPA guidelines address. The state has ramped up its ability to trace cases of the coronavirus, hiring hundreds of workers for a contract tracing program run by KDHE to stop the virus from spreading.
Contract tracing is often cited as one of the primary metrics when reopening the economy. If the virus can be boxed in, life can resume a sense of normalcy.
KRPA is advising leagues to keep updated roster forms with two contacts for each youth participant and that each roster be sent out throughout the league.
KSHSAA is also encouraging schools to keep track of who participates in summer workouts as part of a contact tracing effort.
“One of the things we expect, even here in our office, is maintaining a record of who has come and gone,” Faflick said. “In the same way, we would expect that to take place for our school teams and programs. We’ve got to know who’s taking part in our summer programs.”
It’s already common practice for coaches and administrators to monitor summer participation.
“We’ll keep the same group of kids together,” Barcus said. “We’ll meet with our summer coaches and try to iron out some specifics. We’ll try to keep it to the same group so if somebody gets sick, we can trace it back so we don’t have to close the whole weight room down.”
At Labette County High School, summer weights and workouts have traditionally been divided up into various teams of roughly a dozen student-athletes.
“We draft teams every summer,” Price said. “Our leaders draft the kids. This year, it works out where that helps us with tracking. So we’ll workout in those same groups all summer. That way if somebody gets sick, we’ll know who they’ve been in contact with.”
Faflick said that honest communication between athletes and coaches regarding travel and potential symptoms will be crucial in preventing outbreaks that could set the timeline back.
“It’s so important that everybody remembers they have a role in this,” Faflick said. “It is so important that kids take care of themselves. That parents take care of themselves. It’s not just your season that could be compromised, it could be many, many others. That honesty and communication protocol is necessary. It’ll take everybody doing their part.”
Counties have the authority to impose stricter guidelines than the state as they reopen. Areas more heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic, such as Johnson County, are still weeks away from resuming athletics.
School districts also have the liberty of erring on the side of caution by starting workouts after June 1.
But many counties are ready to rev up athletics across the spectrum. The KRPA guidelines now give a sense of how sports will look this summer.
As for the fall season, the state appears poised to bring sports back. KSHSAA could limit fan attendance or take other measures that change the optics.
“We have plans for all kinds of contingencies depending upon what would happen,” Faflick said. “We’re tied to what schools do and how daily education will take place. If we can start practice on Aug. 17, our coaches will be ready to go and we know we have a good chance to have a fall season.”
College sports will be beholden to their respective associations — the NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA, etc. — and conferences before clear answers emerge for how they can resume sports.
But months after a nationwide pause button was pressed on sports, a timeframe has emerged for Kansas to press play.