How School Arts Programs Are Preparing For a Safe Return This Fall

For countless students, their theater class or after-school band practice is one of the highlights of the school day. School arts programs provide creative outlets, social interactions and opportunities for kids to feel seen.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, students lost this key time of the day. Now with a vaccine plan in place, many schools are bringing back band, chorus, theater and other performing art classes in the fall. This is good news, but schools still need to be careful. Here’s what fine arts directors and their students can expect this fall.

Band Members are Marching Again

When band practice was canceled and concerts postponed, many students felt like they were missing out on a key part of the school experience. Even younger ones weren’t able to discover new instruments and enjoy the same activities their older siblings had been able to do.

“If children and even college students can’t participate in music, it’s going to create such a void and it’s going to reverberate for a long time,” said Mark Spede, national president at College Band Directors National Association, in December 2020.

This need for musical connection and social interaction is driving the excitement for bands to return in the fall. Many returning members are seeing their friends and performing alongside them for the first time in more than a year.

“Plans are being made to return to the field in fall 2021 but with some social distancing measures,” says James Fusik, who has a doctorate in musical arts in contemporary music and is director of athletic bands at Wayne State University in Michigan. “It won’t be exactly like it was before, but I am confident we can still guide the spirit of Warrior support for our team and school.”

Despite rising vaccination rates, many band leaders are still working to create safe experiences for their students — especially for those who can’t get vaccinated or have young siblings.

“So, what does band class look like during a pandemic?” asks Caroline Parker at EducationNC. “For any instrument that needs air to make sound, it starts with a special mask. The mask has an opening in the middle for a mouthpiece, so a brass player doesn’t have to move their mask to play… For flute players, a face shield with a special cutout allows the student to hold the instrument at the proper angle.”

There is also a significant emphasis on keeping instruments clean, especially if students use school-provided equipment. The team at Amro Music, the creators of the podcast After Hours: Conversations for Music Educators, have a series of YouTube videos on how to clean each instrument. This prevents the spread of germs by contact — including the common cold and the flu.

student marching band in bright uniforms; concept: safe return of arts programs

Choral Groups Are Rebuilding

Choral groups proved to be one of the biggest spreaders of the coronavirus last year. Respiratory droplets are easily shared by performers who stand close to each other, breathe deeply, and vocalize loudly. For many choir directors, starting up again means rebuilding trust with performers and parents.

“We don’t interact just with the singer; we need to think of the whole ecosystem when we are continuing with programming and answer to them,” says Marcela Molina, who has a doctorate in musical arts and is director at Tucson Girls Chorus. It’s not just about making sure the kids are safe, but also assuring families that it’s okay for kids to return. Molina says her organization prioritized communication and conversations with families as they started singing again last fall.

Community choirs are also working to come together after COVID-19. A rehearsal by the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington was one of the first super-spreader events in the country, alerting Americans to how quickly the virus can spread. Now, some people are cautious about returning until vaccination rates increase.

“I had several people say I’m not going back until I see a vaccination card for everybody else that’s singing in that room with me,” says Ruth Backlund, a co-president of the group.

Moving forward, student choral policies are likely to change. Many choral and art directors will likely need to rethink their sick policies, writes Tori Cook at Chorus Connection. “Generally speaking, in community choral settings and in the past, singers have erred on the side of ‘coming’ instead of ‘caution’ when it comes to attending rehearsals and performances while they are sick,” she explains.

Directors often make attendance mandatory and won’t let students perform if they don’t attend rehearsals. However, this may change, especially considering what we now know about the spread of germs. More directors will likely encourage sick students to stay home, hopefully preventing the rest of the choir from catching their illness.

The American Choral Directors Association has kept up a page with guidance for running a choral organization during the pandemic. This is a good resource to turn to as states drop their restrictions and students return to the music classroom without masks in the fall. If your school is still partially remote, this site also has a directory of guest artists who are willing to make virtual appearances to lead students.

young children playing a clapping game with their teacher; concept: safe return of arts programs

Theater Companies are Preparing for the Future

The theater community showed a tremendous amount of creativity and versatility throughout the pandemic. High school directors, in particular, took steps to create engaging experiences while reducing risk.

For example, Kathy Morrissey, athletic office secretary at Pine-Richland School District, produced Disney’s High School Musical with 64 students. Because the show is set in a high school, they used the entire building as their stage. Kids were able to complete dance numbers in the gym and cafeteria, while students filmed and recorded sound to be edited later. Families bought tickets to stream the show once it was edited together.

These short-term creative solutions might be the long-term realities of theater performers. Indeed, the use of digital technology is something that more fine arts students will likely encounter, especially as they enter college and pursue their theatrical careers. William Quillen, dean of the music conservatory at Oberlin College, says operas are being reenvisioned for film packages and virtual performances. Art students will work with producers and directors.

“Whenever we emerge from this pandemic it will be ‘both and,’ not ‘either/or,’” Quillen explains. “A return to live performance…but with ever-greater emphasis on ­on-demand, mediated online, through screens.”

Despite the return to live theater in the fall, many summer camps remain virtual. This can present unique opportunities for students who couldn’t otherwise travel to New York City or Los Angeles to learn about acting and productions. Dan Meyer, assistant editor at Playbill, curated a list of top theater summer camps that are going virtual in 2021.

overhead shot of a school orchestra; concept: safe return of arts programs

Are Audiences Ready to Return?

For fine arts organizations across the country, the issue isn’t just keeping the performers safe, it’s welcoming audiences back as well. After all, what is a marching band without a stadium of fans cheering them on? What is the theater without an audience?

Performers “need to see the audience expressions,” says Pam Brant, president at professional training orchestra Symphony in C in New Jersey. “They show it with their body language, their smiles, their applause of course. Musicians feed on that.”

Performing arts venues have done everything from cardboard cutouts of audiences to performing for plants as a way to create engaging experiences, but nothing beats playing for a live audience.

So is the audience ready to return? This has been a key question that performing arts venues have asked since the first states started lifting restrictions.

Alan Kline, director of audience research programs at WolfBrown, has a continually updated page with insights on how audiences feel about returning to live performances. His research pulls statistics from 657 participating organizations with more than 592,000 survey responses to date. The goal of this site is to help organizations make informed, data-backed decisions about reopening. For example, as of June 2021:

  • 40% of respondents won’t attend an event without a mask requirement, while 14% won’t attend an event with one.
  • 27% of respondents won’t attend an event without a vaccinated-only policy, while 17% won’t attend an event with one.

Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer at Impacts Research, has also tracked audience viewpoints throughout the pandemic. The question she keeps asking is: When is it time to relax safety policies? As at June 4, 2021, more than one-half (52.2 percent) of respondents said it is time to eliminate restrictions and return to normal operations. This is a jump from 42.4 percent on April 30.

Most kids are eager to perform, and their parents and friends are eager to cheer them on. As states lift restrictions and continue to vaccinate their communities, these confidence levels will likely increase.

Joining the marching band or signing up for a play can help students form close friendships in school. Almost any child can feel like they have a place and a special talent. The return of band, chorus, theater, and other fine arts classes is a welcome reminder that learning isn’t just about knowing dates and formulas, but about exploring new ideas and passions.

Images by: Timothy Holle/©, WikimediaImages, Ian Allenden/©, hornistjj