CLAY COUNTY — In addition to wanting their children to have the opportunity to play sports this fall, protesters against possibly postponing fall sports to spring in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are taking issue with county public health administration, saying there is a lack of transparency and public input.
Rallies in support of a traditional fall sports schedule were held in Liberty, Kearney and Smithville this week with another rally planned for Thursday, Aug. 20, in time for Clay County Public Health Center’s monthly board meeting. In addition to rallies, proponents of fall sports created a private Facebook group, #letthemplay — Clay County 2020-21 Sports, that now has more than 4,500 members.
“This movement is growing. Our group is now over 4,000 strong and has drawn the attention of school district leadership and state elected officials. Local coaches are pleading their case with their players on social media,” Facebook group member and mother of a Kearney student-athlete Tiffany Kirkland told the Courier-Tribune Tuesday, Aug 18.
Protests kicked off last week with families in Kearney, Smithville, Liberty and North Kansas City school districts in front of Clay County Public Health Center Friday, Aug. 14, after a rumor circulated on social media stating the health center’s board was secretly meeting that morning to discuss canceling the upcoming sports season.
On Friday, Kelsey Neth, Clay County Public Health Center’s communications specialist, said the board was not meeting that day to discuss canceling fall sports. However, center staff did release a statement the same day stating it supports Missouri State High School Activities Association’s recommendations for alternative spring season options.
While MSHSAA is still planning on having a traditional fall season, its alternate would allow fall sports to be played from March 12 to May 1 with spring sports having an alternate season from May 14 to July 10.
“Any decision to offer a spring season is ultimately the responsibility of each individual local school district to make. We are recommending to Clay County school districts that they choose the MSHSAA spring season options for contact sports in supporting our goal of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” states the health center’s Facebook post.
In addition to the health center release, Director of Public Health Gary Zaborac said he recommend shifting contact sport seasons like football for the safety of all involved after being asked for his recommendation from school district superintendents. He said he provided the suggestion while working with them in recent weeks to craft school year reentry plans. The ultimate decision, he reiterated, is up to schools.
The health director added his recommendations can change based on the evolving nature of the virus and community spread.
“Those conversations are still ongoing. We continue to look at options and recommendations for the districts for fall contact sports and will continue to do so,” he said.
As of press time, neither Liberty, Kearney or Smithville school boards have made changes to fall sports schedules. Season openers for football in the districts’ high schools are still scheduled for Friday, Aug. 28.
Kirkland and other protesters contend public health officials are not being transparent about the weight Zaborac’s recommendation carries for local schools.
“It’s actually not up to the schools because when the health board makes a recommendation, (the school boards) are liable to follow (public health’s recommendation). If anything were to happen, liability falls back on the schools for not following public health recommendations,” she said.
Additionally, Kirkland said parents in the pro-fall sports group are also concerned by the way county health operates, suggesting a decision as impactful as moving or canceling sports and activity schedules should include a board vote after considering public input.
“It appears that our health executive is running the show with little to no input from the health board,” the community organizer said.
Board members, Kirkland said, also do not make their contact information publicly available as other elected officials do and have not responded to emails, adding requests to be added to the board’s Thursday meeting agenda under public comment have not been properly addressed.
The public health center board is comprised of five publicly-elected members who are “responsible for adopting policies for the operation of the Clay County Public Health Center and also responsible for setting the annual public health tax levy rate,” states the county public health website, clayhealth.com. “The board is instrumental in designing the strategic plan, implementing public health programs and adopting public health ordinances designed to improve health for all who live, work and visit Clay County.”
Zaborac reports to the board and oversees daily operations of the public health center, much like a city manager reports to a city council and oversees daily operations of a city. Zaborac is responsible for making recommendations to the board and other community stakeholders like school districts on policies, procedures and best practices for overall community health outcomes.
“We had to do some covert digging around to even get email addresses,” Kirkland said. “… Hundreds of emails have been sent to health board officials and only one has replied. Courtney Cole is the only one who has replied, and for that, I am very grateful.”
Cole was taken aback at hearing accusations leveled against the health board for lack of oversight Tuesday, saying since the onset of the outbreak, board members have received regular briefings and the board discusses and votes on mandates such as stay-home orders or mask requirements that are put in place.
While the board has not voted on a mandate to halt or alter school sports, Cole said the public health director does have the power to make recommendations, which are well-informed suggestions, in regards to health statuses in the county.
“And that is what Mr. Zaborac has done, and I support him because he knows what he is doing. He’s a health leader for this entire area. Many other health districts have relied on him and his expertise,” she said.
Board of Health Chair Patricia Dixon said she has received hundreds of emails from the public on the matter and that the public is always welcome at board meetings. As the board is a public body, meetings except for closed, executive sessions — which can be held but are not required to be — are legally open to the public under the state Sunshine Law. All public meetings are required to be publicly noticed and records of meetings must be kept and accessible by the public.
“I don’t know who is telling them they can’t because we do have time in our meetings for public comment,” Dixon said.
Because of occupancy limits and social distancing restrictions in place under the public health recovery plan, it currently means other than the five board members and three to four staffers, not many others are typically in the room at any given time, said Zaborac, but those wishing to speak can wait their turn to enter the room and address the board.
“I have no idea why people are saying there have been secret meetings or that people are not allowed to participate in our meetings,” he said. “… There are no restrictions on who can come.”
Zaborac, who has 36 years of public health experience and who also is a sports fan and former student athlete who lettered in three high school sports, said he understands where families are coming from on the issue, but as health director, his responsibility is to protect everyone, not just those in sports or schools. He said his recommendations are based on data and made with full understanding of the significance of them.
“We in public health have to look at the bigger picture, we have the entire county to worry about,” he said. “I think what gets lost in conversation is that those who play contact sports are not just in those sports cohorts. They are involved in other things and also have contact with those in the stands, those elsewhere in school like teachers, other staff and classmates and then those that they go home to. … People need to understand that their decisions have unintended consequences and affect more than them and their families.”