Kentucky Board of Education Virtual Meeting, August 28, 2020

By Jim Gaines

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) voted unanimously on Aug. 28 to send the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s (KHSAA) Board of Control a letter urging them to consider alternative options, guidance and further clarification on holding high-contact fall sports amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter will be made public when it is finalized, which is expected to be the first week of September.

The KHSAA Board of Control voted on Aug. 20 to allow fall sports practice to begin on Aug. 24, and for games to start on Sept. 7, upholding a tentative decision from July.

The KBE held a nearly 4-hour virtual special meeting on Aug. 28, watched by several thousand people on the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE)’s Media Portal, to discuss the KHSAA decision. But from the outset, KBE Chair Lu Young stressed the intention was not to stop sports.

“We are not here to overturn the decision of the Board of Control,” she said. Rumors to the contrary circulated on social media, resulting in thousands of calls and emails to KDE.

“Given the KBE’s duty to oversee the common schools, including interscholastic athletics, I felt it was only reasonable for the KBE to review the recent decision of the KHSAA Board of Control,” she added. “As such, I called this special meeting … for KBE members to receive accurate information related to the Board of Control decision, hear the concerns of district leaders and be educated on the medical science pertinent to this issue.” 

Kentucky school district superintendents who spoke during the webcast requested consistent, unified guidance from state-level authorities: KBE, KDE, KHSAA and the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH).

Randy Poe, retired superintendent of Boone County Schools, said about 100 superintendents among the state’s 171 public school district are in their first term and they need to know their local decisions won’t be second-guessed by state officials.

Based on health information, LaRue County Superintendent David Raleigh said he expected recommendations on athletics would correspond with the recommendation to delay in-person classes until Sept. 28. When KHSAA authorized starting practice and games before returning to in-person class, Raleigh said, he had to answer many community questions.

“If we can’t have kids back in school for in person instruction, how can we allow athletics?” he said.

Raleigh said that while he’s a proponent of sports and the benefits they provide, he remains concerned about safety.

Alvin Garrison, Covington Independent Schools superintendent, will formally join KHSAA’s Board of Control on Sept. 1, but has been attending meetings since July. The group’s discussion has always been about how to restart athletics in the safest way possible, he said.

“The debate has been around the timing,” Garrison said.

Sports bring great social benefits, teaching leadership and citizenship, he said. But Garrison and other Northern Kentucky superintendents disagreed with starting at this point.

Without widespread testing, students and families will be placed at risk; and school districts don’t have the resources to test athletes regularly, he said.

Superintendent Mike Borchers of Ludlow Independent Schools said the same decision on whether reopening is a good idea will come back before school districts repeatedly in the coming months. When it does, local officials will need a unified message and support from state-level authorities in order to effectively implement opening or closing plans, Borchers said.

KHSAA Made Many Plans
Throughout last spring’s shutdown due to COVID-19 and this summer’s efforts to establish reopening standards, KHSAA’s relations with Gov. Andy Beshear and health officials has never been adversarial, KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said.

The sports governing body adopted a cautious strategy of waiting to see how other states fared in restarting athletics and reviewing health data from many sources, he said.

KHSAA sought to strike a balance between young people’s psychological need for activities such as sports and protecting them from COVID-19, Tackett said.

“I can tell you we have developed, revised, trashed, envisioned about 40 plans,” he said.

The Board of Control’s decision gives schools an “opportunity” to hold sports, but leaves the decision up to local districts, Tackett has said.

He previously has said KHSAA is finalizing detailed guidance for sporting events and will issue guidance on spectator attendance. Much of KHSAA’s guidance will refer to existing KDE guidance on sanitization and transportation, Tackett said.

Health Effects Still Unknown
DPH Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack said DPH is working with KDE on a “stoplight” rating system for each county’s COVID-19 incidence. But it is not yet available and should not be used as the sole measure for opening or closing schools.

Given that 17 states have canceled high school football altogether while others have delayed their seasons, and that Gov. Andy Beshear recommended delaying in-person classes until Sept. 28, Stack said it would have made sense to him for Kentucky to at least differentiate between high-contact and low-contact sports, and delay the former.

Kentucky’s rate of COVID-19 infection has increased dramatically since the flagship Healthy at School guidance was released in June, Stack said. Cases have leveled off again now, but the higher incidence means the guidance should change to require students to wear face masks at all times except when eating or drinking, he said. When eating or drinking, people should be farther apart than the current recommendation of 6 feet, Stack said.

The top criterion for success in reopening is a low rate of COVID-19 transmission in the community, Stack said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting participation in extracurricular activities such as sports to tamp down transmission.

“Where social distancing doesn’t happen, disease spreads,” Stack said.

The Southeastern Conference requires heavy, frequent testing for COVID-19 related complications in its college football players, he said. Stack wondered how many Kentucky parents could afford to pay for that level of testing if their student athletes showed COVID-19 symptoms.

Most children who catch COVID-19 will be fine, he said. But even those without symptoms can carry a greater viral load than hospitalized adults, Stack said.

“They definitely can infect other people,” he said. “It is not just about ‘kids don’t die.’”

The disease’s long-term effects are still unknown, but some lingering conditions already are showing up, such as heart inflammation, Stack said. That may pose a particular risk for athletes who regularly put their bodies under strain, he said.

Stack said he thinks sports are inseparable from school and knows everyone wants to get back to a normal routine. But a COVID-19 vaccine will not be available this year and when one is developed, it will go first to the most vulnerable, he said. Until then, schools and communities must deal with it.

Financial Impacts
Vice Chair Sharon Porter Robinson asked what could be done to improve access to medical services for all students, a problem highlighted by COVID-19. Stack replied that there are many opportunities to improve equal access to healthcare, but he had no answer on how the issue should impact the decision to hold school sports.

Few medical facilities in Kentucky will perform echocardiograms on patients under age 18, although COVID-19 makes heart inflammation a potential problem for student athletes, Stack said. Even people with private health insurance are likely to face a $1,000 bill for that procedure as part of their deductible, he said.

Robinson asked if schools have enough resources to implement sports-related guidance and how KDE could support students who can’t afford the required protection.

Tackett said very little of the coming sports guidance goes beyond what already is recommended in Healthy at School. But funding challenges for schools will be exacerbated by attendance limits, meaning sports likely will not be self-sustaining this year, he said. Most schools use home football games to pay for other sports, so if that money dries up, districts will face prioritizing programs, Tackett said.