Lynnette Carr-Hicks, the director of the Uniondale High School show choir, laughs easily and oozes enthusiasm. But tears and a sense of loss flooded her recently when she stepped into the choir room at the high school, quiet since COVID-19 emptied it last spring. The hard-hit community will keep all school instruction remote this fall.
“I’m getting emotional now,” she said. “This is the new normal.”
The coronavirus has cost her award-winning show choir — and marching bands, orchestras and theater groups in schools across Long Island — the chance to compete, travel and perform. The pandemic has even led to layoffs in the arts program in the North Bellmore district, but Carr-Hicks and other educators said they are adapting, deepening curriculum, following safety guidelines and employing technology in ways that could transform music and the arts under COVID-19’s new realities.
“You know, it was tough at first; I had a lot of technical problems,” Carr-Hicks said of her early efforts rehearsing online in Google Meets with the show choir. “I had them sing 'la la la.' I had to laugh; I thought it was so funny we couldn’t get it together with the echos and out-of-sync singing. Now I have it under control. Now I’m an A student.”
When her principal informed her she would have 100 students on-screen in her concert choir class, she said, "No problem." Her show choir is already preparing digital concerts for special events, and the district intends to present digital winter concerts for all its bands, orchestras and choirs, she said.
Adjusting to new norms
As in every aspect of school life, music and art classes won’t look as they once did. Singers and masked instrumentalists will socially distance: strings 6 feet apart, wind instruments and singers 12 feet apart, and they will spread across larger spaces like auditoriums. Where space is insufficient, instruction will be virtual.
Students will no longer huddle over art projects or share buckets of markers. Instead, each will have separate supplies, and art teachers will come to the elementary school classrooms rather than classes coming to the arts room.
High schools are making decisions that fit their space, educators say. At Syosset High School, for example, all art and design classes will be offered with proper spacing, said Michael Salzman, coordinator of the district’s music and fine arts programs.
At Malverne Senior High School, however, art and photography will be virtual, said Michael Messina, chair of the district’s music and fine arts programs. “Teachers are a little upset with that,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, we have jobs right now. We want them to keep it in perspective, we have a job and we’ll be bringing art to the students even if it’s virtual.' ”
He added, “It’s a big undertaking. The teachers have done the technical work, they’ve learned the software, learned how to edit and really done an incredible job.”
The district is committed to drama and musical performance as well, he said, whether recorded or virtual. “We will have a production. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Messina said.
Music educators in particular said no longer having to focus on concert preparation has a silver lining.
“In a lot of ways it presents a good opportunity for us,” said Salzman, who is immediate past president of the New York State School Music Association, or NYSSMA, which evaluates young musicians and auditions thousands of them for all-state performing groups. “We can spend more time on skill development and fundamentals … on music history, on composition. The relationships between music and the world around us … these are subjects we too often push to the side because we are too busy getting ready for concerts.”
He added, “You know what? We have an opportunity to make ourselves better, and if we can come out of this better than we went into it, that would be great.”
An emotional blow
However, the loss of in-person performances are an emotional blow to many students and teachers.
The announcement in July that the state competitive marching band season was canceled “weighed very, very heavily on our shoulders,” said JonLuc Thompson, 17, of Lakeview, who was in his second year as a drum major for Malverne’s marching band, The Pride of Malverne.
The band brought him friends and camaraderie, and when the band synced in performance, when everyone was on the same page, “It unified us in a way that nothing else could. It eliminated all the stress we felt in school, or work, or social interactions. All that stress, all those worries go away There's a rush of adrenaline and you just feel powerful.”
The day the team won the state’s small-school division two years ago “was one of the best moments in my life,” Thompson said.
And it’s a loss, too, to the parents who help fundraise and run the competitions, said Yesenia Reyes, mother of Malverne senior Angie Reyes, JonLuc’s fellow drum major.
“About four or five of us, we call ourselves the Crazy Band Moms, and it’s so much fun. It’s really a loss this year, but 2020 is definitely not a year to plan anything. You just roll with the punches.”
But without the pressure of performance, John Gallagher, director of music and fine arts in the Longwood school district in central Brookhaven Town, said music educators will have “a unique, wonderful opportunity to work on the basic fundamentals of musicianship” such as intonation, posture, instrument tuning and fingering, and repertoire and theory.
“We’re going to have to adjust our expectations for projects and just try our darndest to make sure they get a quality sequential education,” he said.
Gallagher was excited to learn recently that the annual NYSSMA Winter Conference all-state concerts, which had been canceled, would now take place virtually for the students selected to participate.
The new COVID-19 guidelines on spacing have left some districts with harsh options. In the North Bellmore district, with more than 2,000 elementary school students in five buildings, five of its eight music teachers were laid off recently. Superintendent Marie Testa said the district had no room for in-school instrumental instruction and would rehire teachers based on how many families wanted virtual lessons before or after-school hours. Music classes will continue for grades K-6, she said.
“We are not cutting the program,” she asserted. “We were in a very challenging situation … nobody wants to touch a music program. It was heartbreaking for us.”
In Freeport, where a third of students have opted for virtual instruction, Ruth Breidenbach, director of the arts and community relations, said teachers were innovating and “passionate about how they teach — they and the district have really made a commitment to making this work no matter what.”
Music education was essential to students' development, she said. "We integrate social and emotional learning in our classes.”
Thompson, the Malverne senior, said despite his band season's cancellation, he was excited for the new school year.
“Being in this situation together will help unify the school and student body. Everyone is going through the same situation, everyone is feeling the same emotions, and we can all relate to it,” he said. “Despite all the things that may be different from a normal year, I think this year is going to be something special.”
About 420,000 students in 124 districts across Long Island are scheduled to return to their public schools this month in person or remotely. The largest wave of reopenings is scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday, with other systems starting Sept. 14.