Teens and parents plead with Johnson County Commission to allow for high school sports during COVID-19 pandemic

More than a dozen parents and teeangers pleaded with Johnson County commissioners Thursday to use different COVID-19 metrics more favorable to the playing of high school sports this fall.

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Teenagers and parents turned out at the Johnson County Commission Thursday, pleading with commissioners to change the way they look at COVID-19 case data in order to make it more favorable for the playing of high school sports this fall.

“For some of us, especially our seniors, we’ve been working our whole lives for this season. For our season to be jeopardized based on false percentages is a shame and is very devastating,” said Ethan Hunt, a rising senior, who plays soccer at Blue Valley Northwest High School.

There is no evidence to suggest county health officials have been falsifying data used to track the spread of COVID-19 in the area.

Eighteen people spoke during the commission’s public comment period. Many of them cited the emotional benefits of playing youth sports and asked for commissioners’ help with data that would make their own school boards more comfortable about holding games this fall.

Most of the commenters represented either the Olathe or Blue Valley school districts, though Shawnee Mission Schools officials have also been wrestling recently with how to relaunch student sports and activities this fall amid fears such activities could help spread the novel coronavirus.

The county commission has no direct authority over districts’ decisions, but the parents who spoke Thursday said their district’s school boards are leaning on the county health department’s “gating criteria” for reopening. But county officials pointed out those criteria are meant as recommendations, and they have enough flexibility for districts to make their own decisions.

In any case, said county Public Health Director Sanmi Areola, gating criteria are still being developed and are not in their final form yet. Areola’s office is expected to release its final guidelines for school reopening next week, ahead of Sept. 8, the date all public school districts in the county are set to start classes.

The gating criteria on the county’s webpage lists various recommendations to guide the districts into in-person, partial in-person or remote learning. Those guidelines use the percent of positive new cases, plus the trend in decreasing or increasing new cases. But the speakers at the meeting suggested another metric that the county look at: cases as a percentage of the county population, which they said would be more favorable to reopening.

Some parents said many teens consider sports a key part of their personal identities. A few speakers related stories of how their own children benefited from being on a team and their dreams of playing at top levels of competition. They said they feared dire emotional consequences if students, especially high school seniors, had to miss the sports they’d been counting on.

“How do we know how they’re going to handle it? How do we know that we’re not going to go up there and see a suicide note in their room? I implore you to look at the gating criteria,” said Dawn Bishop of Olathe, her voice shaking at times.

Others mentioned the potential loss of scholarships that could help some students pay for college. Darrin Wolff of Overland Park said his son, a rising senior, has been recruited by colleges on the East Coast.

“Everyone is telling us, ‘Man we’d love to have your son here. We just need more film. We need more games,'” he said.

Greg Power of Overland Park said his son, also soon to be a senior, looked forward to being able to play Division I football next year.

“That has true monetary value,” of $100,000 or more,” he said.

John Cecil of Overland Park was blunt: “What you are doing with your gated requirements is not leading. You’re failing us. You’re failing the people of Kansas.”

Commissioner Steve Klika said he was frustrated that the parents were looking to the commission for what is essentially a school board decision.

“For them to abdicate their responsibility is extremely frustrating,” he said of school officials. “School districts are trying to hide behind the county and very much trying to protect potential liability claims.”

Areola cautioned that no matter what criteria is used, the transmission rate in Johnson County is still worryingly high.

“There were just under 2,800 new cases in the past four weeks,” he said. “That’s a lot of transmission.”

“No matter how you look at the data, whether you use positivity rate, or you use the rate number of new cases as a function of the population, or absolute rate count or absolute number of new cases per day, the bottom line is transmission in our county is too high,” he said.

The amount of transmission remains a risk for not only the students but staff and others, he said. However, the gating recommendations are still in draft stage. Areola said the final draft will consider public input and should be available in about a week.

Earlier this month, the Shawnee Mission School District suspended training and conditioning for fall sports for two weeks because of the high number of cases.