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Jefferson County Public Schools To Phase In Fall Sports

Liz Schlemmer

The Jefferson County Board of Education voted 5-2 on a phased-in start for fall sports for the 2020-21 school year, with lower-contact sports like cross country and field hockey beginning Tuesday, Aug. 25. Higher-risk sports with more contact, such as football and soccer, will begin full-gear practices on Sept. 7.

The decision marks a departure from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) guidance, which allows all fall sports teams to begin full practices on Aug. 24.But the JCPS decision avoids a total cancellation of fall sports, which was one option presented to members Monday.

"I know this is one of the most difficult, challenging decisions that you have had to make," Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Superintendent Marty Pollio said before the vote.

Board members said they had been "swamped" with thousands of emails from parents urging them to move forward with fall sports, and not all of them were civil.

Linda Duncan, who has been on the board since 2006, said she had received more input on the fall sports question "probably more than any other issue that I've faced since I've been on the board."

James Craig, who voted for the phased-in start, said he didn't think canceling fall sports would slow the spread of the virus, given the amount of overall non-compliance in the community with masks and social distancing.

"If we're not going to get any gain from it, if we're not going to slow the spread of the virus through our decision, I'm really concerned about who we're going to harm with our decision if we cancel for sports," he said, noting that many affluent students may continue to play in private clubs or Catholic schools.

Corrie Shull, however, had the opposite take.

"I don't see how we can undertake fall sports and not contribute to the increasing rates of COVID in Louisville, Kentucky, and thereby create or increase the intensity of this public health crisis," Shull said. "I not only have students in view, I have their families and larger communities."

Jefferson County's test-positive rate for COVID-19 was 9.1% Monday. Public health experts warn against reopening if the test-positive rate is higher than 5%. As of Monday evening, 277 people have died in Louisville, and last week local health officials confirmed 1,368 cases.

Shull voted against the proposal, along with Chris Brady, who said he worried the plan would not prevent transmission of the virus.

Though members Duncan, Chris Kolb, Diane Porter and Joe Marshall each expressed some misgivings, they voted for the phased-in plan, along with Craig.

Pollio said the district could suspend practices or contests, or all sports if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. Students will be required to follow all the guidelines and can be dismissed if they don't.

"We'll expect our schools to monitor this closely," he said.

Middle and elementary fall sports are postponed until in-person classes resume. Officials say the seasons for younger students are not dictated by the KHSAA, and sports traditionally played in the fall could be played in the spring.

The phased-in schedule for JCPS high school fall sports is below.

The JCPS plan calls for additional safety and health measures during practices and games: no shared water bottles, no post-game handshakes, no borrowing of equipment among players. Masks must be worn by non-players and spectators; equipment should be sanitized; and players, spectators and officials should all be screened for symptoms of COVID-19.

It's not clear whether spectators will be allowed at all. Guidelines around having fans, and health protocols for games and practices are scheduled to be released by the KHSAA this week. JCPS officials say they plan to follow that guidance.

There are no requirements around testing athletes for COVID-19 in the JCPS plan — a precaution the SEC and NCAA are requiring for their athletes at least once a week. The SEC is requiring at least twice weekly testing, and a possible third test closer to competition in football.

The JCPS board vote came hours after Gov. Andy Beshear said that while he still has concerns about the KHSAA timeline, he wouldn't reject it.

"I have concerns that...by starting with some of the most high-contact sports that we risk a shortened season, we risk what I think can be successful plans to get our kids back in school. We risk every other sport that's going to follow," he said.

"But we can't be making every decision for what's best for folks out of the governor's office."

During his briefing Monday, Beshear urged districts moving forward with fall sports to consider whether they would be able to go to such lengths as the SEC.

"Every program is going to start up, I want you to really think, are we testing our athletes? Are we doing everything that it takes to keep them safe? Are we putting them first?" he said.

Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack warned that scientists have discovered a potentially serious heart condition in collegiate athletes who had recovered from COVID-19, called myocarditis.

According to the New York Times, Ohio State researchers found myocarditis in nearly 15% of athletes who recovered from the virus. Most of them had mild symptoms of COVID-19, or none at all. But lingering myocarditis can be serious, even deadly. The condition is an inflammation of the heart, which can lead to cardiac arrest.

"I hope this doesn't happen, but it's just going to take one 16- or 17-year-old to drop down on the sporting field before someone notices that it's not fixable," Stack said during Beshear's briefing.

The governor has recently faced sharp criticism from some local school leaders and Republican state lawmakers over his recommendation that all districts use remote learning until Sept. 28.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.