Just days before Memorial Day, Kansas State High School Activities Association Executive Director Bill Faflick was optimistic about the prospects for fall sports.
The state was less than two weeks from summer workouts starting up. Kansas cases of COVID-19 were trending downward. KSHSAA was in the early stages of preparing its models for fall sports.
At the time, Faflick said the association’s acclimation procedures coupled with a statewide flattening of the curve put Kansas “on a good path to the fall.”
On Wednesday, nearly two months later, a clean start to fall sports came off the table.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order delayed the opening of schools until after Labor Day and delayed the start of fall sports.
“The executive order will apply to all K-12 activities or academics,” Kelly said. “(KSHSAA) oversees sports, theater, drama, debate, all those kinds of things. Sports will be included in that.”
Fall sports practices were to start Aug. 17. Week 1 of the football season was scheduled for Sept. 4, the Friday before Labor Day. These will be pushed back.
In two months, how did Kansas get to a point where fall sports were attainable to being under the same threat that canceled spring sports in March?
It started the day after Memorial Day, May 26, when Kelly abandoned enforcement of her statewide phased reopening plan. That plan included detailed guidelines for athletics from the Kansas Recreation and Park Association.
Kelly’s decision came after the Kansas Legislature threatened to weaken her emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move gave county and city commissions authority to impose or rescind the state’s coronavirus restrictions. In the following days, the vast majority of counties — including Johnson, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties, which had some of the largest clusters of the virus at the time — undid nearly every restriction in an effort to reopen.
That trend sparked an increase in COVID-19 cases over the next two months. One byproduct was that various schools across the state were forced to temporarily shut down summer weights because of coronavirus exposure.
“We were really positive about the fall heading into summer workouts,” Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus said. “As it went along, those numbers started going up. That causes me anxiousness as an athletic director. Every phone call I get I think may be a parent telling me their kid tested positive.”
From May 26 to now, cases have trended upward and exceeded the initial peak in April. July 7 saw a record number of new cases with 489. The highest number of new cases in a single day before Memorial Day was 423 on April 28.
“We have fumbled the ball, people, and that’s the bottom line,” said Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, on Wednesday.
A document from the White House released by Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C., labels Kansas and 17 other states as being in a coronavirus “red zone.” This means that Kansas has experienced over 100 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over the last week.
“We got knocked off the path,” Barcus said. “It’s not just Kansas. It’s nationwide now. Everybody knew school would look different. But we thought we could have compromises to have sports.”
Shortly after Kelly’s press conference Wednesday, KSHSAA announced that it would not release plans for the fall on Friday as planned.
1/2 The KSHSAA believes participation in school and school activities is critical for the students of Kansas and we strive to provide those opportunities for students this fall. This Friday (7/17) the KSHSAA had planned to distribute considerations and guidance for all fall...— KSHSAA (@KSHSAA) July 16, 2020
2/2 activities to take place starting August 17. With the announcement today (7/15) from Governor Kelly, we will not release any information Friday. Rather we will go back and look at models and plans that are in place with a delayed start and release information when appropriate— KSHSAA (@KSHSAA) July 16, 2020
Instead, the association is back to the drawing board preparing models that allow for a delayed season.
“There are no plans anymore because of the governor’s order,” said Mike Kastle, a member of the USD 503 Board of Education in Parsons and the KSHSAA Executive Board.
“We have ideas and suggestions on how each activity should operate. As a board, we want kids to have the opportunity to play. Whether it’s a full season or half a season, we just want to see activities.”
Kastle also said that he believes KSHSAA will move as rapidly as possible to present a plan for the fall.
“It’s possible that we’ll have a plan in a week or so,” Kastle said. “We’ll meet Wednesday and discuss what has happened and see where we can go. I know the staff has so many plans in place. So they’ll put some ideas out to us.”
KSHSAA is waiting for the governor to issue her executive order and for the Kansas State Board of Education to accept it before coming out with fall plans. How the order is written and interpreted will be crucial in the association’s decision making.
“A full season is probably not going to happen. A partial season is certainly possible,” Kastle said. “Everything is on the table.”
State associations around the country are starting to release plans for fall sports and they span the spectrum. New York delayed the start of the season and canceled fall championships. Pennsylvania wants to start its season on time with practices set to start on Aug. 17. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is calling on the state to flip the fall and spring seasons — sports like baseball, softball and track present fewer chances for contact than football and volleyball.
Faflick expressed two weeks ago that KSHSAA is averse to flipping seasons. With the fall at higher risk than next spring, Faflick doesn’t want traditional spring sports to be at risk of losing back-to-back seasons.
Schools are also bracing for the possibility that state championships may be canceled this fall. No state playoffs would limit travel while a regular season, which can happen on a more regional basis, could be preserved.
“I just want to give my kids the opportunity to be together,” Labette County High School volleyball coach Heather Wilson said. “I don’t care what that looks like. We’ll handle whatever is given to us. But a wide-sweeping cancellation of everything we’re doing is a scary and slippery slope. Of course we’d be disappointed to not have a postseason. Any kind of compromise will be made by our students and coaching staff to get us on the court.”
School activities are very important for Kansas students. In a study by U of Wisconsin with Kansas students: The health related quality of life scores declined in the absence of school activities. pic.twitter.com/9nU7B5wkCC— KSHSAA (@KSHSAA) July 17, 2020
Administrators are prepared to make sacrifices if it means sports get greenlit.
“Whatever the state asks me to do, I’m willing to do,” Barcus said. “I’ve got my own kid who wants his senior football season. Maybe I’m selfish in wanting him to have one. But most coaches and athletic directors feel that way. If KSHSAA gives us a clear path, you’ll have a 100% buy in.”
If cases of COVID-19 stay at their current rate, sports will not happen this fall. Sports have already been taken off the table when the virus surged to similar rates in the spring.
“If cases continue to increase, I can see the state board, governor and KSHSAA scrapping the fall season,” Kastle said. “Then we’ll hope for the winter and spring unless we get the curve flattened. We’ve got to stop the cases.”
The cancellation of spring sports has left coaches and players scarred. The threat that fall sports may suffer the same fate reopens the wound.
“I’m devastated at the possibility of these kids being challenged yet again and swallowing the very thing that brings a lot of them to school,” Wilson said. “I’m saddened to think that we’re even at this point. Most important is student safety. I think there are ways to get kids to compete and be with their teammates.”
A sense of anger and impending doom is starting to take root among coaches and administrators.
“That makes me very angry when something as simple as wearing a mask or not gathering in crowds don’t happen,” Barcus said. “We just need to stay safe. We need to slow down what we’re doing as individuals. It’s not just one person’s fault. It’s a collective fault.”
“All we had to do was follow the science,” Kastle added. “It irritates me to go into a store and see people with children and not wearing a mask. If those parents want their kids back in school, get your mask on.”
It took just under a month for the COVID-19 case rate in Kansas to go from its peak in April to late May, when Faflick proclaimed that KSHSAA was on track to have fall sports.
Labor Day is just over a month away. Norman pointed out on Wednesday that there is enough time to flatten the curve again.
“My priority is what’s best for every kid in every school in the state,” Kastle said. “If that means we’ll scrap the state championships or have a modified season, that’s what it’ll be. Any decision I’ll make on that board will be what I think is best for everybody.”
Fall sports are staring down the barrel of a gun. Precautions taken by all Kansans, including mask-wearing and social distancing, are what will take the finger off the trigger.