The Kentucky Board of Education took no specific action that would halt high school sports after more than three and a half hours of presentations and discussion during a special meeting Friday.

Ultimately, the board ordered the Kentucky Department of Education develop a letter to the Kentucky High School Athletic Board of Control “urging additional consideration of alternative options for high school sports” on behalf of KBE chair Lu Young that would include the board’s comments from Friday’s meeting. The deliberations were broadcast live on the KDE’s YouTube channel.

The Department of Education received thousands of calls and emails and some threats beginning Thursday morning after a report on Twitter seemed to indicate that the state board of education was going to consider recommending the KHSAA alter its fall season plans. The onslaught prompted a clarification by interim education commissioner Kevin Brown Thursday afternoon that canceling fall sports was never part of the agenda.

Young reiterated that declaration at the outset of the meeting.

“I called this special meeting for the KBE to hear from KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett, district superintendents, as well as the Kentucky Department for Public Health,” Young said, noting it is the board’s “sacred duty” to ask questions about these decisions. “It is not my goal, nor has it ever been that the KBE should override the decision of the KHSAA Board of Control. Despite rumors and media chatter, you will see that no such action item appears on this agenda.”

The KHSAA’s Board of Control, which is composed mostly of school officials from around the state, voted 16-2 on Aug. 20 to permit practices for football, soccer, volleyball, field hockey and cross country to begin this week. Golf, as a low-contact, low coronavirus risk sport, has been allowed to play its normal schedule. Competitive cheer and dance remain on hold, but their championship schedules have been set.

Competitions for most sports are set to begin Sept. 7 with football kicking off its season on Sept. 11. Jefferson County’s board of education pushed back their schools’ start dates by a week. In Fayette County, some football teams canceled early games so as to have another week of practice.

On Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear said he reluctantly would allow high school sports to move forward. Beshear admonished school districts to be mindful of the health and safety of their student athletes.

Health cautions

Kentucky public health commissioner Dr. Steven Stack presented his cautions to the KBE as part of Friday’s deliberations. Those warnings included the possible long-term effects teens who get COVID might have to deal with.

“I’m not here to tell you, ‘Oh, people are going to die, so don’t play sports,’” Stack said. “I’m just here to say, ‘I don’t know if people will die. How comfortable are we all allowing sports to happen not knowing if this is going to be as big a problem as the early signals suggest it theoretically could be.’”

Stack also mentioned that COVID-19, while not seeming to have many lasting effects or fatal outcomes for children, still poses a significant risk to others.

“Kids very much get the disease and spread the disease … ,” Stack said. “It’s not just about ‘kids don’t die.’ It’s about kids have a role to play in the bigger community, and what happens to all the other people around them in the community. That matters as well.”

Stack praised the draft of the KHSAA’s proposed guidelines for all of its sports.

“I think the KHSAA guidance is thoughtful. I think it’s very comprehensive in many ways,” Stack said, while also noting there were risks that not even college teams are managing with the extensive testing and protocols at that level.

KHSAA moves

During Tackett’s hourlong presentation Friday, he outlined the actions the KHSAA has taken since the pandemic hit and those guidelines

While Tackett acknowledged there are risks to starting play, he noted that there are risks inherent in playing sports in any event and there are negative aspects of keeping students out of school and their extracurricular activities.

“We happen to be in our business at the confluence of two different health crises. And that’s the psychological health and relationship building and actual relationships that athletics give you and the pandemic itself,” Tackett told the board. “And either one has consequences. … We are on ice skates trying to navigate that.”

Constantly changing and sometimes conflicting health information and the ability of many critics to cherry pick data to suit their own narratives has made reaching any kind of unanimity on playing sports impossible, Tackett said.

“Everyone right now can print a document that supports their position,” Tackett said.

The KHSAA’s draft of their COVID-19 protocol guidance, posted on its website, runs for dozens of pages and outlines procedures and recommendations for every sport. It includes requirements for the cleaning of balls and equipment, the prohibiting of pre- and post-game handshakes among teams, protocols for the coin tosses and recommendations for spectator attendance.

The guidance includes already-implemented protocols for screening athletes before every practice and game involving temperature checks and questionnaires. It also includes steps to take when an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 and directs schools to follow local health department directives regarding contract tracing and quarantines for players and staff.

Among its provisions are recommendations (not rules) on fan attendance, which call for each district to work with their health department to determine a safe number of fans for events. The KHSAA recommends during the early stages of play that fans be limited to 20 percent capacity and ratchet up as pandemic conditions allow in each community.

Board of education members voiced support for high school sports and many, including Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a former high school coach who is married to one, noted their personal ties to high school athletics. Many questions revolved around the logistics of enforcing safely protocols and protecting the athletes.

“We all want the kids to play,” Coleman said. “I want us to remember that we can have two thoughts in our head. We can want our kids to play, but we can also say we need to go above and beyond to make sure they do it safely in the middle of a worldwide health pandemic.”

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