Loud singing, close dancing and emptying a trombone’s spit valve are all activities essential to music class but prohibited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Performance classes like band, choir and drama face unique challenges and harsher restrictions than others given the difficulties of singing and playing instruments with a mask, as well as the aerosols created by both activities.
“We really are missing out on the whole family aspect, which is a bummer,” said Kimberly Rodriguez, marching band director at Middletown High School. “We are still staying positive.”
Teachers have faced hybrid classes, with some students in the room and some online, making it difficult to coordinate any group performances. In Rodriguez’s band class, students have primarily worked on recording themselves individually.
“We layer (the recordings) all on top and try to put out a concert together,” Rodriguez said.
In the fall, when school was just starting, transmission of COVID-19 in the region was lower and the temperatures were warmer. This allowed marching bands to practice doing steps outside, or even playing together outside, but spaced apart.
“It was really nice because it allowed us to play as an ensemble — which we didn’t know it — wasn’t going to happen again,” Rodriguez said.
However, Rodriguez said that student motivation to practice marching declined sharply once they realized that all of the usual events, like football games, that they would march at were cancelled.
“When the year went on and we found out for sure we weren’t having any football games, the kids really lost their drive to practice,” Rodriguez said.
A similar situation is playing out for Jillian Kellogg, a Middletown High School drama teacher. After trying and failing to figure out a way to put on a performance via Zoom, the students now attend drama classes and clubs without the end goal of a show in mind.
“We were going to put on a production — it was all going to be videotaped,” Kellogg said. “We were going to kind of edit it all together, people were going to submit videos, we held virtual auditions. A lot of people didn’t come to the virtual auditions. A lot of people didn’t want to submit things. Then it was ‘How are we going to edit it all together?’ Once I got past the idea of us putting on a production, drama club got a lot better.”
But for senior drama students like Emma Young, this means coping with the realization that their performing career in high school is over.
“It really sucks,” Young, a student at Middletown High School, said. “I am really sad and upset about everything to the point where I am in three of Kellogg’s classes so I can at least have some sort of normalcy. It’s really upsetting — this is what I get to do for my last year.”
In “hybrid” drama school, Kellogg has consistently had only one to three students attending class in person. The rest have been online. She, too, has been alternating between online and in-person teaching because of having to stay home with her own children after they were contact-traced for a COVID-19 case at their school.
To make sure that the students keep learning, Kellogg has been creating “units” based on the students’ areas of interest. Each member of the class has a project they have to take to completion. For junior Chloe LaCroix, this meant working on a stage makeup project. First, she drew out the face, then she went through the steps of applying the makeup and taking it off.
“We have individualized units personalized to us and the things we want to learn,” LaCroix said. “This year for me, I have loved this class. I have gotten to explore something new in theater makeup and SFX makeup. That’s one thing I have loved about the COVID experience of school. I got to explore something new I never knew I wanted to do before.”
On Kellogg’s Zoom screen, LaCroix was one of four students in 7:30 a.m. “Advanced Drama” class. She was the only one attending class in person, while the other three were at home. The same split was present in Rodriguez’s wind ensemble class. Rodriguez said that the rising cases and the limits on music classes have caused more and more students to go online, or to quit marching band altogether.
Rodriguez said that previously even students that weren’t devoted to their instruments would come in to play because it was a chance to socialize and make friends. Now, students who were used to their instrument blending into the sea of other sounds realize that they have to play individually, and that turns them away from the class.
“That feeling of family isn’t there and some of the kids can’t hide,” LaCroix said. “It used to be more of a social thing, but the social thing isn’t there. There are a whole bunch of kids who have gone fully virtual and a whole bunch of kids started coming to school and switched to virtual because when they come to school they have to stay six feet apart, wear these shields, masks on. Yes, we are seeing it in band, but across the board there is a lack of interest.”
Marching band worked with the local health department to get special “band shields” that have clear plastic sides and a top to help contain aerosols. Additionally, Kellogg requires that when students play, even outside, that they cover the end of their instrument with a bell cover and spread apart.
Some students who are practicing their instrument at home find it to be more peaceful, given the challenges of being in-person.
“If I am mad or upset or just upset at myself I come down to where my instrument is and I just start playing,” said Jason Berry, a sophomore trombone player. “It makes me relaxed every time.”
Music students have high hopes for next year after canceled trips to Disney, postponed performances and silent sports games have left them dreaming of big performances.
“We had a straight play planned for this year that we are hoping to carry over to next year if we can,” said junior drama student Sam Crowley. “The idea of doing an upperclassman exclusive musical is really exciting. The shows we want to do next year are really good, and it would be really fun to be able to do those and perform them the way that we want to.”