Parents around Kansas, in the words of one mom who spoke during the KSHSAA Appeal Board meeting last week, mobilized to get back into high school gyms after the association restricted attendance at winter sports.
Those parents’ efforts paid off on Tuesday when the KSHSAA Board of Directors overturned its initial decision to restrict all fans from attending games. Now, one-to-two parents per participant will be allowed into games, although schools reserve the right to be stricter.
The administrators on the KSHSAA board that voted to allow fans back in will certainly be more popular with a vocal core of their constituents. But the science of COVID-19 spread isn’t on their side. KSHSAA staff tried to tell them that, but now kids and sports will suffer. The viability of full seasons is eroding exponentially.
Kansas is one of the largest hotspots for the pandemic in the nation. President Donald Trump’s White House task force on COVID-19 put it bluntly in a report dated Dec. 6.
“Mitigation efforts must increase, including the implementation of key state and local policies with an additional focus on uniform behavioral change including masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene, no indoor gatherings outside of immediate households, and aggressive testing to find the asymptomatic individuals responsible for the majority of infectious spread.”
According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state in all but two days since Dec. 1. The overwhelming majority of clusters come from places almost exclusively frequented by adults while schools and sports have accounted for just 6% of cases.
In a report by the Montgomery County Chronicle, nearly every EMS call and emergency room visit in the city of Independence was COVID-19 related. Labette Health, which has facilities in Parsons and Independence, is reporting a positivity rate of 30-35%.
“We don’t see any relief to this until after the first year,” Labette Health Emergency Room Director Becky Mitchell said, per the Chronicle.
With winter sports — basketball, wrestling, etc. — moving indoors, the risk for high school sports becoming superspreader events increased significantly compared to the relative safety of outdoor sports. The KSHSAA Board of Directors initially addressed this right before Thanksgiving by preserving the start of winter sports while keeping the adults out.
Parents mobilized. And the KSHSAA board backtracked.
Adults in Kansas have proven themselves unwilling to follow health and mitigation guidelines, as KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick put it, “with fidelity.”
“As a society, we’re not perfect,” Faflick said on Tuesday. “There’s evidence of community spread. We never lose sight of that data...everybody needs to be socially distanced.”
The same adults that have failed Kansas fought to be let back into gyms with kids and won. The price kids will pay will be more lost seasons.
It’s inevitable that the virus will be at games this winter. Even the lowest estimates of parents allowed into gyms exceeds 50 at small schools when you take into account two schools with players, cheerleaders, band members and other participants. Add in the participants themselves, even small events could have over 100 people in attendance.
According to Georgia Tech University’s peer-reviewed COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool, all but one county in Kansas has a greater-than-75% chance that at least one COVID-19 positive person will be in attendance at an event with 100 or more people.
When those cases are caught by local county health departments, they’ll trace them back to those gyms. Coaches and players will be quarantined. Teams will be shut down. Seasons will be paused if not lost entirely.
Parents that will be in gyms this winter have the opportunity to buck the trend. They can follow the advice of the White House task force, state and local health departments by masking up properly — that means wearing the mask over the mouth and nose. They can socially distance in the bleachers. They can stay home if they’re feeling symptomatic.
But those demands mean more enforcement on the part of school administrators and the reversal of a months-long trend of aversion to health guidelines. Both are tough asks.
Shane Holtzman, the principal at Labette County High School who represents the Southeast Kansas League on the KSHSAA board, voted to allow fans in on behalf of his league. But he, personally, objects to fans being let in and didn’t hide his feelings after Tuesday’s meeting.
“It wasn’t what I felt like was best right now,” Holtzman said. “I don’t want people to think we’re taking something from them. But our job is students first. We want them to continue to have these opportunities. I want my kid in practice, games, on those bus rides and around those coaches. Whether I see him perform or not is where those life lessons are learned.”
The most celebrated leaders don’t make popular decisions. They do what’s right often in the face of immense opposition.
A majority of KSHSAA’s board steered away from science on Tuesday. Instead, they sided with the populous.
Now, we await the cost of that decision.