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Kansas High School Athletes Can Start Working Out June 1, But Fall Sports Aren't A Sure Thing

One of the last games of the Kansas 6A high school basketball tournament was played March 12 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita. All school activities ended shortly thereafter because of the coronavirus.
Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
One of the last games of the Kansas 6A high school basketball state tournament was played March 12 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita. All school activities ended shortly thereafter because of the coronavirus.

Kansas high school teams can start informal workouts in a few weeks, provided they maintain social distancing and stick to small groups of athletes. But fan-favorite sports like football and soccer could go by the wayside in the fall if the coronavirus is still spreading.

High schools across Kansas expect school to open this fall, and with that may come Friday night football. Yet sports during a pandemic could look different.

The Kansas State High School Activities Association has issued new guidelines on how teams can get in shape this summer starting June 1 — insisting on social distancing rules and gathering restrictions that would apply even in high-contact sports.

That’s when things could get interesting: How do football and soccer work in the time of COVID-19?

“We wouldn’t be able to play a football game if there is still an expectation of social distancing,” said the association’s executive director, Bill Faflick.

Official team practices can’t start until Aug. 17. He said the association has looked at things like taking temperatures, but, ultimately, it’s about what schools will do come the fall.

If there is in-person instruction, he said, “then we’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable having after-school activities, because it’s like a classroom.

“If school doesn’t resume in that face-to-face manner, then I’m not so sure what our activities will look like — whether it will be we don’t do anything or these are the activities where we can still maintain (social distancing).”

The new guidelines, which were adopted May 1 in a 48-22 video-call vote by the association’s board of directors, comes as Kansas has started reopening businesses and establishments in phases.

Under the guidelines, schools can restart summer athletic programs like strength training and conditioning work on June 1. And programs need approval from county health departments.

“Everybody’s going to be different,” said Michelle Olson, the principal at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas. “We know it.”

Plus, there’s “an absolute expectation” for schools to socially distance as sports activities ramp up, Faflick said. “You cannot conduct an activity where you cannot maintain social distancing.”

Spring sports — as well as the final rounds of the state basketball tournament, which Faflick said was a “six-figure loss” of gate receipts alone — were canceled this year when Gov. Laura Kelly moved all school instruction online in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And some cheerleading and dance camps have been canceled this summer because social distancing is not possible.

About 40 high schoolers play sports in the St. Francis Community School District in far northwest Kansas. Principal Dave Morrow voted for the recommendations. As a KSHSAA board member, he represents all seven schools in the Northwest Kansas League.

“KSHSAA is doing whatever (it) can to give schools and the athletes that participate in them as much liberty as they can under the governor’s guidelines,” he said. “They’re kind of using those as the starting point for everything that we try to schedule, and allow coaches in all of our schools to schedule things.”

Faflick said that summer participation is voluntary for students and for school districts, and programs can only be held if local health officials feel it's safe.

That might not be a problem for the St. Francis district. Cheyenne County has just two cases of COVID-19. But Morrow said there was some discussion that smaller schools in bigger metro areas will be at a disadvantage when competition starts up.

Many of the state’s biggest counties also have significant numbers of COVID-19 cases, which means health departments could require schools to hold off conditioning and training for a couple of weeks beyond June 1. But not every school in those counties is in the same division, meaning smaller schools in more rural areas — where there are typically fewer cases — could start working out June 1.

Faflick said schools across the state already have built-in inequities, like the number of coaches and the types of facilities that vary from district to district.

The resumption of some sports activities gives an “opportunity for kids to both physically and mentally reconnect with the activities that have been set aside for the past nine weeks,” Faflich said. The published guidelines also call for gradually ramping up activity to lower the chance of injury.

“This has been difficult for the students to not only have to stay at home, but they’ve lost their spring season and many of them are anxious to get back into something,” Olson said. She voted for the June 1 start date and said more than half of her 305 students play sports or are involved in some kind of KSHSAA-governed activity.

Her school is in Wyandotte County, which has the most COVID-19 cases in Kansas, and some students are from neighboring Johnson County, another early hot spot.

Kansas high schoolers appear not to be getting COVID-19 to the extent that other age groups are, though testing for the virus in Kansas is really only being done if symptoms are showing. Kansas Department of Health and Education statistics show 10- to 17-year-olds make up just 2.5% of positive cases and 18- to 24-year-olds are 11.4% of cases.

But teenagers can be vectors for the virus, spreading it to more susceptible populations.

“We do not want to sacrifice student safety or fan safety or parent safety in any way just so that we can have sports,” said Morrow, the principal from far northwest Kansas.

Phase Three of Kelly’s reopening plan tentatively begins June 1, and opens up gatherings to as many as 90 people as long as there is still 6 feet between each person.

Olson said officials at Bishop Ward plan to do most athletic training activities outside and “limit the number of students in the weight room at a time.”

Kelly’s final phase, which starts no sooner than June 15, lifts all restrictions on the number of people who can be in one space at a time, though social distancing rules will remain in place.

Erica Hunzinger is the news editor for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @ehunzinger or email her at erica (at) kcur dot org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Erica Hunzinger is the news editor for the Kansas News Service.
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