Kansas high school fall sports and activities will start on time in 2020, the Kansas State High School Activities Association executive board decided in a Tuesday meeting.

KSHSAA presented a proposal that would have practices start on Aug. 17 but delay the start of competition for football, volleyball, boys soccer and gymnastics to Sept. 8. The executive board voted to reject that proposal by a 5-4 vote, highlighting the division in the state on how to proceed through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local school districts will retain the right to delay start dates as they see fit based on recommendations from local health departments. 

The KSHSAA board members that voted against delaying the season included Hill City Junior High School Principal Alan Stein, Cheney High School Principal Greg Rosenhagen, Olathe North High School Principal Jason Herman, Rose Hill High School Principal Shannon Haydock and Salina-South High School Athletic Director Ken Stonebraker.

Parsons USD 503 board member Mike Kastle, Southern Cloud Superintendent Roger Perkins, Kansas State Board of Education representative Deena Horst and Sublette High School Principal Monty Marlin voted in favor of adopting the delayed model. 

“I was on the fence,” Kastle said. “I’m OK with doing what we’re doing. Maybe we need to get some games in early because something may happen later on. I put my faith in the KSHSAA recommendation, but I was really close.” 

Highlighting the inconsistent philosophies of the state’s response to the pandemic, Horst voted to delay some sports seasons despite voting against Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order that would have delayed the start of the school year until after Labor Day. 

Horst cited a concern about student-athlete health and readiness if seasons were delayed. 

“(The close vote) is emblematic of the fact that we have no idea on what’s going to happen,” Kastle said. “This the first time in 12 years that I remember a vote being this close.” 

In his opening remarks of Tuesday’s online meeting, KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick conceded that every decision has a variety of consequences.

“There’s no good answers as we move forward,” Faflick said. “Every decision we make is right, and every choice we make is wrong.” 

Faflick also said that the association intends to hold fall championships but made no promises.

“It is premature to guarantee we’ll have championships at this point in the year,” Faflick said. “We cannot guarantee that the weekend after Thanksgiving, it will be appropriate to play football.” 

KSHSAA delayed its decision on fall sports last week and requested a statewide survey of superintendents to gauge when schools would be starting.

According to KSHSAA’s data, which had 263 respondents, 73% of schools will start their fall semester on or before the week of Aug. 24, and 27% of superintendents, amounting to 72 in total, indicated that their districts would start the week of Aug. 31 or later.

“Those schools that did move back their start dates, are they also planning on telling students that it’ll include activities? Or will athletes be able to begin practice? I think that’s extremely important,” said Marlin, the Class 2A representative on the KSHSAA executive board.

Rosenhagen, the Class 3A representative, added that most school districts that are starting later are from more populous areas of the state where the pandemic is more widespread. 

Kastle said he expects most school districts to allow practices to start on Aug. 17 even if they start school later or delay the start.

“I would be surprised if it affects teams getting on the practice field,” Kastle said. “I think we’ll have a lot of schools still hold practices, so I still think teams will be able to play on opening day.” 

Kastle will advocate for that position to the USD 503 board. The Parsons school district delayed the start of the school year to Aug. 26 and will start the first two weeks under a distance-learning model.

“Our kids need it,” Kastle said. “Kids are ready to come back and want to come back. I think it’s the right decision to get kids wherever they need to be.”

Herman, the Class 6A representative, said getting activities started on time will allow students to participate in sports that will be more regulated with health guidelines than private club sports.

“We are competing against the club world. If we don’t keep the integrity of our high school sports, those kids will have other places to go,” Herman said. 

Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus said that delaying the start of the football season — a Sept. 8 start would have cost the entire state its Week 1 date — could compound the issue of potential lost games due to the pandemic.

“I thought they were making a mistake trying to take that Week 1 away,” Barcus said. “Some schools are going to face a cancellation. Chances are at some point in the season, some schools are not going to play. So that gives us another game to have in our schedule.” 

KSHSAA, leagues and school districts now must prepare for strategies to deal with potential outbreaks and what will happen if a team cannot compete because of COVID-19.

“The association will likely say contracts are null and void this year if that happens,” Kastle said. “We’ll likely say it’s a no contest. That’d be an executive board decision. It’s the same type of action with rainouts in baseball and softball.” 

Labette County High School volleyball head coach Heather Wilson said as her school revamps its volleyball schedule to align with health considerations from KSHSAA, adding junior varsity dates is a measure she hopes to implement.

“We’re looking to pad our JV schedule because you may have a JV kid that needs to move up to varsity because of COVID-19,” Wilson said. “I doubt there’s a team where a team will go unscathed where a kid doesn’t have at least contact with a case.” 

KSHSAA has advised most sports in the fall to avoid large tournaments and restrict travel to games as much as possible.

“I can tell that they care about the well-being of our student-athletes,” Wilson said. “They’re consulting experts in getting our kids back to play. I’m excited that we will have an opportunity to have as normal of a season as we can at this point. I think our athletes will be excited about it.” 

Tuesday’s near-split vote from the KSHSAA board showed how divided Kansas remains in its approach to the pandemic. But for now, high school sports and activities are a go for the fall.

“We’re a diverse state, and that showed in the vote,” Kastle said. “The votes were not centralized to any one location. We all want what’s best for kids. The issue of mental health hits my mind. So we’re going to move forward.” 

Faflick also highlighted the need for continued individual mitigation against COVID-19 to preserve the season.

“We all play a part in mitigating the risk and returning our communities to normal,” Faflick said. “Start with personal hygiene. Start with wearing a mask.” 

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