Newport Central Catholic captains with head coach Steve Lickert, right, during a football scrimmage with Newport Central Catholic at Covington Catholic August 10, 2018. Captains will not be permitted to hold hands like this during the 2020 season. (Photo: James Weber/Enquirer)
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) denied claims Thursday that it is planning to delay or cancel the high school fall sports season in Kentucky.
The KDE, which is based in Louisville, will have a virtual meeting at noon Friday to discuss the future of high school sports in Kentucky. Kentucky High School Athletic Association commissioner Julian Tackett and Kentucky public health commissioner Dr. Steven Stack are scheduled to testify.
The main focus of the meeting will be to review safety guidelines and protocols produced by the KHSAA to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly in the riskiest high-contact sports.
The KHSAA voted on Aug. 20 to begin official practice this week for all high school fall sports except golf, which began July 31. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said on Monday he would not overturn the decision but had a lot of reservations about the KHSAA’s plans.
Details of the upcoming KDE meeting were leaked Wednesday evening by Adam Wells, a TV sports anchor in Paducah, who said in a tweet that “Source said the KDE is aiming to overturn the decision to play.”
That line prompted an outpouring of calls and emails to the board of education office this morning.
Members of the “’Let Them Play’ in Kentucky” Facebook group have been encouraging supporters to contact the Board of Education. Several members have posted on the group Thursday reporting that they have called the board office, and that staffers there have told them the switchboard has been flooded and voice mailboxes are already full.
However, Toni Konz Tatman, a spokesperson for the board of education, said that concerns over further changes to the schedule are unjustified.
In a Tweet Thursday afternoon, she said “FYI: Cancelling or postponing the high school football season (or any other fall sport) is NOT on the agenda for tomorrow’s KBE meeting. There are a lot of rumors swirling around on this and we have received threatening phone calls this morning. Not OK.”
Kevin C. Brown, interim commissioner of the board of education, released a statement further clarifying the board’s position.
“I want to correct some misinformation that is being spread across social media and news outlets,” he said. “The Kentucky Board of Education will not be considering canceling sports seasons at its special meeting Aug. 28. There is a narrowly tailored agenda that includes a report from KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett about the status of fall sports, a report and discussion from Department for Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack, concerns from superintendents and possibly authorizing a letter from the board to the KHSAA Board of Control voicing concerns about high-contact fall sports.
“The KHSAA is the designated agent of the KBE and its authority will be respected, yet the board still has a moral obligation to review matters that could affect the health and safety of students. This is why I recommended the meeting take place. To do otherwise would place the KBE members in a position of ignoring their obligation to oversee the ‘management and control of the common schools and all programs operated in these schools.’”
By law, the KHSAA is an agent of the state board of education, which must approve all of its actions. The KHSAA was already required to send safety protocols and guidelines for the upcoming season to the board, and did so Wednesday night, releasing a 47-page draft document to the public.
The document formalizes many ideas that have been voted on in previous KHSAA meetings this summer, while deciding important items such as attendance limits.
Among areas covered include sanitizing of equipment, recommending online and cashless ticketing, and serving prepackaged food at concession stands. All participants except athletes actively in the field of play are required to wear masks.
The document also addresses procedures for when an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 and requirements for him or her to be permitted to return.
Concerns over the state government allowing the high school sports season to proceed on schedule have been present since the governor recommended that all schools stick with only virtual instruction through Sept. 28.
The Diocese of Covington, which governs the vast majority of private schools in Northern Kentucky, opened schools to in-person instruction on Aug. 17, while public schools in the region have abided by Beshear’s request.
Beshear approved the KHSAA’s plan Monday with reservations, predicting that a lot of teams would have their seasons cut short by outbreaks, and that a delay in the season could allow more time for the threat from the virus to lessen and prevent that from happening.
The 11 voting members of the state board of education were appointed by Beshear. None of the members are from Northern Kentucky.
Ohio and Indiana have recently begun their regular seasons in high-contact sports, Indiana started playing football, soccer and volleyball last week. Ohio high schools were permitted to begin soccer and volleyball seasons last weekend, with the first Friday night of football beginning tomorrow.
Some other highlights in the draft document of safety protocols:
The KHSAA set a maximum attendance of 50 percent, and recommends each county and athletic venue determine their own number based on the layout of each facility and current spread of the virus in that community. Ohio and Indiana have adopted similar rules.
In cross country, an outdoor sport where protocols have been vague because dozens of athletes are bunched together at the start and finish of races, the KHSAA made new recommendations.
Meet directors are required to widen the starting line and each starting box for a race, with the boxes 6 feet apart, and each box can only have one school represented. Staggered starts are recommended when needed, and mass gatherings for awards ceremonies or checking printed results are prohibited.
The document also requires small changes in customary rituals at sporting events, banning pregame and postgame handshakes in football and not allowing volleyball teams to change benches between sets unless there is a clear competitive advantage on one side of the court.