Kansas has, by and large but certainly with exceptions, gotten through fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That accomplishment is the result of meticulous planning and extensive guidelines from the Kansas State High School Activities Association that was executed by school districts.
Will the same hold true for winter sports? Or will the surging threat of the pandemic wreak havoc as athletics heads indoors?
KSHSAA is surging ahead with basketball, wrestling, girls swimming and bowling for now. But the entire state knows how dire the straits are getting.
At a recent press conference, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly noted that the state was able to get through fall sports because most were all held outdoors.
The novel coronavirus is far more likely to spread indoors. According to FiveThirtyEight, in a database of 20,000 cases, only 6% were the result of outdoor transmission. And even those were mostly tied to heavily attended mass gatherings such as farmer’s markets and political rallies where social distancing and masks were largely absent.
“Our school districts are starting to have those kinds of conversations,” Kelly said, “and I think they’ll be making some decisions. We’ve gotten a little lucky with the contact sports that have occurred this fall in that they were outdoors. Everything will be moving indoors soon.”
Governor Laura Kelly was asked about possibly canceling games this winter after more of the state is seeing “outbreaks in athletes”Here is her answer... ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/DJJM0a8pdr— Sean Boston (@SeanBoston_PxP) November 10, 2020
Temperature doesn’t change the behavior of the virus. Rather, more people huddle indoors to escape the cold which allows for more spread.
While Kansas has nearly reached the end of its fall sports season — there’s two more weeks of playoff football — the state didn’t get here without sacrifice.
KSHSAA instituted sweeping changes to nearly every sport’s postseason that were met with mixed results, according to the Wichita Eagle. The association’s executive director, Bill Faflick, acknowledged some of the backlash. Rather, he argues that they’re necessary preservation methods.
“I don’t like the modifications we had to put in place. But it was absolutely to give us a chance to have the events continue in a manner that’s respectful of the environment,” Faflick said.
Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus echoed that sentiment.
“I think KSHSAA is doing the best they can with what’s going on,” Barcus said. “They’re trying to find a way to have a better chance to finish and play out.”
Across the state, teams shutting down for two weeks or more because of outbreaks were common. Some of those shutdowns came at particularly inopportune times.
Fredonia High School shut down its football team in the second round of the playoffs after a positive case popped up. Fredonia head coach Marc Svaty learned of the case and impending shutdown on Thursday, a day before the game, and spent hours informing his team over the phone.
“I’ve never had to make phone calls to seniors to tell them their season is done. That was very difficult,” Svaty said. “Something that has always been given to you was taken away without being completed. We had some kids that were very hurt.
“I felt fortunate that we were able to play a season as long as we did. Obviously it happened at an unfortunate time. But we knew the guidelines and adhered as much as we could. It was a very well laid out plan and we knew exactly what would happen.”
The shutdowns were often the result of local county health department policies, which vary wildly. That became the cost of doing business for high school sports; the lost opportunities for some preserved those same opportunities for others.
“It’s letting the local health authorities do their jobs,” Faflick said. “We’ve recognized from the beginning that we’ll play when we can play. That’s a continual assessment of the risk versus the reward. We’ll mourn the teams that didn’t finish in the postseason, but we’ll celebrate those that did.”
As sports move indoors, mask-wearing will be a central focus.
The state’s approach to masks throughout the pandemic has been patchwork at best. While Gov. Kelly issued a statewide mask order, counties and cities have the power to opt-out. In a state with over 1,000 COVID-19 deaths, 24 of 105 counties have some form of mask mandate in place as of Oct. 15 according to the Kansas Health Institute.
A study by the University of Kansas found that those counties saw a decrease in their seven-day rolling average of daily cases two weeks after the mandate was issued.
Ross Albertini, the city attorney for Parsons, has witnessed both sides of the coin. Parsons High School got through its fall without any interruptions to its season due to the virus. No student-athletes tested positive in a city that has a mask ordinance. Albertini drafted the ordinance for Parsons, which resides in Labette County which has no ordinance.
But Albertini is also a father of a St. Paul High School student-athlete that played volleyball. That team was shut down for two weeks in the fall due to a positive case while the city of St. Paul has no mask ordinance.
“Is that a result of just St. Paul or (Neosho County) not having the ordinance? I don’t know,” Albertini said. “It’s more frustrating for me as a parent that the rules are different at St. Paul than at other schools. It seems like we have arbitrary, geographic boundaries in place that change the rules. The lack of a consistent plan statewide is what’s more frustrating.”
Georgia Tech published a peer-reviewed COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment tool that calculates, based on case numbers, the likelihood of a positive case showing up to a gathering according to size within a county.
According to that tool, at an event with 50 people, only four counties in Kansas have a less-than-50% chance that at least one positive case will be present at an event. Meanwhile, there 46 counties with a greater-than-99% chance.
With cases on the rise and indoor transmission a major risk factor, schools will be more aggressive with their protocols this winter.
“We’re going to follow as many of the guidelines as we can based on our facilities,” Cherryvale High School Athletic Director Rodney Vigil said. “As county cases start to increase, nothing is off the table. You’re going to have to be adaptable based on the circumstances.”
Attendance restrictions beyond social distancing and mask-wearing at schools, with the exception of KSHSAA postseason events, were rare in the state during the fall. In the winter, expect attendance caps to be common practice.
“With our fans in the stands, the whole situation is getting scary with the way the numbers are going up right now,” Barcus said.
According to Faflick, KSHSAA is considering various adjustments to its structure for winter sports to address the expected uptick in quarantined teams. Those include reducing the number of games and competitions for teams as well as extending the winter break moratorium.
“The palette is wide open,” Faflick said. “Do we maintain a 20-game basketball schedule? The same number of competition points in wrestling? We may only have 16 basketball games because we don’t want a team to miss two weeks then try to make up some games.”
Barcus said that any decision KSHSAA makes will have consequences, good and bad.
“I don’t know what they can do,” Barcus said. “We’re all trying to push through the best we can. It may be feasible to try and reduce the number of competitions. If you never get quarantined, then you just lose those three games. I don’t know if KSHSAA has a good avenue to go either way.”
KSHSAA released its protocol considerations for winter sports earlier in November and they mostly mirror the same suggestions for fall sports — don’t travel as far, smaller tournaments, frequent sanitation, etc.
One guideline that raised eyebrows was the elimination of the jump ball to start a basketball game. What seems like theater to most is actually a guideline meant to protect officials, according to Faflick.
“That’s 100% what it’s for,” Faflick said. “The one time, unless there’s a fight, officials are between players is the jump ball. The best officials are never within six feet of the players. The purpose of the no-jump-ball is to let the officials maintain social distancing. We need to have protocols for all the stakeholders.”
KSHSAA’s COVID-19 protocols are not mandated by the association; schools are not required to adhere to them. According to an informal survey of superintendents conducted by Faflick, 86% said their district followed most or all of the guidelines.
“There’s a lot of unity in what we’re doing but there’s also a lot of uniqueness,” Faflick said. “We don’t want to put a school in a box where they can’t compete. We’d like them to be followed all year long, but local schools have to adapt.”
Faflick also said no decision has been formally made on having a postseason for winter sports.
“Do we want to have it? Yes,” Faflick said. “But it’d have to look a little different. We need to figure out how to refine our processes to be better. We need to see the trends go the other way.”
Faflick wants to stave off any cancellation of entire seasons as long as possible after witnessing the effects of missing the spring season earlier this year. But as KSHSAA monitors a litany of factors from positivity rate to hospital capacities, he’s willing to pull the trigger if necessary.
“No decision is ever off the table,” Faflick said. “No decision will be right for everybody or wrong for everybody. Our priorities are our member schools and the students they serve. When the risk becomes greater than the benefit is when that decision has to be made.”
Basketball seasons will be disrupted. Wrestling seasons will look vastly different with the potential elimination of any competitions beyond duals, triangulars and quads.
There will be fewer, if any, fans in attendance. The Maize school district announced on Nov. 10 that there won’t be any fans allowed until further notice. The South Central Border League announced on Friday that the entire league will bar fans for the rest of the first semester.
Gov. Kelly said it best when it comes to the viability of winter sports this year.
“It won’t be easy.”