Kansas City schools OK winter sports despite COVID concerns

As the Kansas City metro reports skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and record hospitalizations, health officials are warning school districts against a particularly risky activity: indoor sports.

The Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte county health departments all recently announced their recommendation against winter sports, held inside, where the virus can more easily spread. In particular, they warn against wrestling and basketball, where social distancing is impossible. Clay County is expected to issue its guidance this week.

“We know that many of our districts are returning most of their students to in-person learning modes. The risk of infections is higher with in-person learning. Athletics and extracurricular activities increase the risk even more when there is excessive exhalation, close physical contact and a lack of masks,” said Sanmi Areola, Johnson County public health director.

But throughout the region, districts are ignoring such guidance. The Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and De Soto districts all plan to move forward with winter sports. Kansas City Public Schools — one of the few districts where students are learning online only this fall — also will allow practices and games, without spectators. Winter sports have already begun in Lee’s Summit. And others, like the Kansas City, Kansas, school district, will decide in the coming days.

The conversation has divided the community once again, after a summer filled with protests and lawsuits as parents pleaded with districts to let their kids play fall sports. Thousands of teachers and parents are voicing concerns about rapidly rising infections making their way into schools — possibly leading to classrooms closing again.

“I feel like it is reckless for school districts in the metro area to let student athletes play winter sports. I also think it is reckless for there to be other private leagues playing winter sports,” said one Blue Valley teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was advised by the union not to talk to media. “It is hard to see where the logic of this is coming from. When did we start disregarding science?”

But thousands of other parents are rejoicing that their children won’t miss out on the upcoming season.

“My daughter played volleyball indoors this fall. So we’ve already been playing indoors. They wore masks when they played. Our spectator list could only be immediate family who lived in our household. We sat in the stands spread out,” said Blue Valley mom Carrie Jones. “The kids will do whatever it takes just so they can play.”

Health officials have praised districts for following mitigation strategies, such as requiring masks, which they say have helped limit in-school transmission. But this fall, sports — mostly football — led to dozens of cases and hundreds of students and employees in quarantine, disrupting classroom schedules and staffing needs. And as more students return to classrooms during the flu season, officials worry that allowing indoor sports will only exacerbate the risks.

Many districts that began the school year having older students learn online only have slowly allowed them into classrooms, either a few days a week or full time. But now they may reconsider those decisions. Health officials are sounding the alarm as they report an exponential increase in coronavirus cases, warning districts to be especially vigilant this winter.

Blue Valley West won the Kansas Class 6A state high school volleyball title on Oct. 30 in Salina. Proponents argue that schools already allowed volleyball indoors, so they should proceed with other indoor sports for the winter season. BVW Jaguar Athletics/@BVWestJAGS photo

The fight over sports

Jones, who has two children in the Blue Valley district, is among the thousands of parents who have fought for schools to allow sports this year. And overwhelmingly, their efforts have been successful.

She belongs to a Facebook group with more than 6,000 members, that has organized rallies and contacted local school boards, pleading with officials to “let them play.” It’s only one of several local groups online.

“We’re the ones who make decisions for our kids. If you don’t want your kids to play, don’t play. But it’s America. We need freedom of choice to make those decisions,” Jones said. “Exercise your choice, but don’t take it away from me or my child. These kids have been working their whole lives for this.”

Many parents have highlighted the importance of sports for their students’ mental and physical health. Some have emphasized that their children needed to play this year to have a better shot at obtaining college scholarships. And Jones was especially eager to have her senior daughter play volleyball this season, knowing that the Blue Valley West team had a chance at the state title, which they recently won.

But this summer, Jones wasn’t sure that her daughter would have an opportunity to win the championship. Districts throughout the Kansas City metro announced that they would follow health officials’ recommendations on when and how to safely open schools. And with Johnson County in the “red” zone per its criteria at the time, that meant sports and activities — like band and choir — would be canceled.

And districts did suspend all sports, after health officials warned that the risk of COVID-19 spreading among athletes and spectators could make it more difficult for classrooms to reopen this fall.

But then came the protests, with hundreds of people rallying outside of school board meetings. And then the lawsuits. And one by one, districts reversed their decisions.

Michelle Pekarsky, spokeswoman with the Kansas City Health Department, said that local districts felt additional pressure after the Big Ten Conference announced it would resume the fall season, “even though they don’t have the budgets or resources of those college teams.”

Several Johnson County districts decided to mostly follow the health department’s gating criteria — except when it came to sports. One Olathe board member, Shannon Wickliffe, said the decision made him uncomfortable. “I struggle with the fact that it could potentially damage our ability to get students back in class sooner,” he said at the time.

Across the state line, the Kansas City school district allowed fall sports, without spectators, even with all students learning online. But the Kansas City, Kansas, district decided to suspend fall sports.

Less than one month after classes began — with all six of Johnson County’s districts allowing sports — the county health department released updated, more relaxed, guidance on when to bring students back to classrooms. Officials said it was based on new knowledge learned about the virus during that time. And in the new criteria, the county removed its recommendation on when to allow sports.

Districts have implemented several safety protocols at games and practices. Players must wear masks, especially while on the bench or off the field. They must use their own water bottles and avoid sharing equipment as much as possible. The number of fans allowed in the stands was limited.

Health experts agree those steps have helped schools avoid large outbreaks, although many cases have popped up, leading to entire teams being quarantined at times and games being canceled.

“One community had two positive cases on a football team. The initial pair of cases resulted in a total of 18 positive cases and 100 people in quarantine,” Areola, the Johnson County health director, said. “In a different community, a football player who played during his infectious period resulted in quarantines for 67 of his teammates and 15 from an opposing team. Yet another football team quarantined 18 players after their team played a team with a positive case.”

Both the Rockhurst High School and Lee’s Summit North football teams had to drop out of the playoffs because of COVID-19 cases.

Many school administrators have argued that students are safer playing sports in school, where there are masks and other requirements, rather than at private clubs. For Jay Dunlap, president of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, that made allowing sports worth it this year, he said — emphasizing that games and practices will be suspended if there is an outbreak.

“Having to interrupt a sports season is not a failure or a sign of a bad policy; it is a sign that we are doing what is necessary during a pandemic to keep students healthy while giving them as much opportunity as possible for personal growth and development,” Dunlap said.

But with cases surging metrowide, health officials have taken perhaps their strongest stance on sports yet — clearly warning districts not to allow them this winter season.

COVID-19 risks mount

Health experts acknowledge the importance of youth sports. They provide a needed outlet, social interaction and an opportunity for physical activity while kids are often stuck at home during the pandemic.

But with coronavirus cases rapidly rising, many argue that the growing risks may outweigh the benefits.

“While the decision is ultimately among families, schools, districts and health departments, from a medical standpoint, with allowing winter sports, there is definitely increased risk of transmission as we see cases continuing to rise in our area,” said Amol Purandare, an infectious disease doctor at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.

The Kansas City metro reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row on Friday. Johnson County’s record-breaking numbers last week put it in the “red” zone per school criteria.

And the University of Kansas Health System recorded its highest number of COVID-19 patients that week.

“It’s an extremely sharp slope,” Areola said Thursday of rising cases. “And we’re not at the top of where this is going.”

Officials worry the trend will continue as cold weather arrives, which will likely come with indoor gatherings around the holidays, and flu season. And that is especially worrisome as districts allow more students back in classrooms.

One place where we have the best chance to control the increased spread of the virus, is within our schools,” Wyandotte County health officials said while advising against winter sports. “(The health department) has consistently stressed that the overarching goal is to protect the health and well-being of students, teachers, school staff and families by carefully considering all risks and weighing them against the benefits of social interactions and learning modes.”

Despite the COVID-19 cases among students and staff, health officials have said fears of spread from schools to the wider community have so far not been realized. Areola blames the recent surge in cases on parties, weddings and other gatherings, adding that most cases are among people 20-60 years old, not school-age children.

But the rise in cases is causing districts across the metro to reevaluate their learning plans, especially as they look toward the next semester. This week, several school boards will meet to determine whether to continue with in-person learning, at least part time, or return to online classes for some students.

“If we continue on an ever increasing trajectory for our incidence rate and percent positive (rate), it will impact our schools,” Olathe Superintendent John Allison said at Thursday’s school board meeting. “It will push us to a point where we have to reconsider our learning modalities. It will impact our staff, and without our staff, we can’t hold school in almost any format.”

Health officials have not yet recommended that districts return to online-only classes. And while those decisions are still being pondered, districts have been clear that winter sports will be allowed, at least for now. And in some districts, middle schoolers will be allowed to play sports for the first time this school year, when only high schoolers were permitted previously.

Purandare said that playing sports indoors makes it difficult to remain physically distanced, including on the bench and in the stands. Sports like wrestling make it impossible to social distance, or avoid breathing heavily in close contact with others. And the difficulties of continually cleaning uniforms and equipment during matches, and stopping so players can wash up, add another risk.

“For athletes, coaches, staff and families, if they do get COVID-19, there is a broad range from no or mild symptoms to very significant and life threatening symptoms. While children tend to have milder symptoms than adults, we have also seen children with severe symptoms as well,” Purandare said.

Knowing districts will likely allow sports anyway, health officials have issued guidance on how to mitigate the risks. They include requiring masks, regularly testing players and staff, not allowing spectators or limiting attendance to immediate family members, plus monitoring for symptoms. They recommend cohorting teams, meaning players stay in their own group and don’t mingle with other students in school buildings.

District leaders say they will follow these protocols, as they did for fall sports.

“We have an abundance of safety protocols built into our in-class instructional models, and have confidence that through rigorous adherence to these protocols, we are able to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 in schools,” Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton said in an email announcing that winter sports would be allowed.

But some worry that “districts are prioritizing sports over learning,” the Blue Valley teacher said.

“I feel like so many districts backed down after starting out doing the right thing. I am extremely concerned as the numbers in our community continues to skyrocket,” she said. “(Student-athletes) will be putting their families at risk, and those people have jobs, and there the domino effect starts.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.