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In defense of the performing arts in Long Island schools

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/bsd555

In late January, I was happy to learn that the state had given its blessing for high-risk sports to resume at the high school level. Surely, a return to the performing arts could not be far behind? Basketball, cheerleading and even wrestling were allowed to resume and masks were not even mandated for those actively participating.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Teenagers that look to the arts for the fulfillment of their passions were left to wonder: What about us?

"During the time of COVID-19, many of these healthy, positive outlets have been taken from my students," laments Mark Hegreness, Smithtown High School East chorus director, "and though we are doing everything we can to provide opportunities, nothing can replace the experiences they are missing."

In my high school chorus class, we’re still required to sing with masks and 12-foot distancing. The beloved practice of holding concerts for parents and friends is replaced by the poor alternative of recording a video of a truncated performance, which is then uploaded to YouTube. Plays and musicals are performed virtually, if at all. The loss of enthusiastic and lively audiences leaves an unfilled void. While it may be true that teenage athletes are also not afforded the opportunity to play before their usual spectator crowds, they are still able to participate in their chosen sport in every other way. We, performing artists, haven’t been as lucky.

Many in New York have always regarded arts offerings as the poor stepsibling of sports programs. Many school districts allocate a fraction of their budgets to theater, dance and music while devoting thousands of dollars to athletics. Students who plan to use athletic scholarships as a pathway to college are often regarded as higher on the food chain than those who seek a career in artistic expression. These differences have been substantially amplified as a result of New York’s current manifestation of its priorities.

Many students fear that the lack of access to meaningful programs now will impact their career paths and college applications later. "[The pandemic] made me question if I [still] want to do this for a career," a fellow Smithtown High School East classmate worries. "By the time I’m out of college, things could still be crazy. Theaters in the city could never be able to recover and I could have no work ... it’s very scary." Her words ring true: Broadway, one of the very first casualties of the pandemic, lowered its curtains nearly a year ago, and its reopening date is still to be determined. Community theaters have fared no better. If allowed to continue for much longer, the artistic void created by the pandemic may be too great to ever fully overcome for current students.

For students who suffer from isolation, academic disruption, and hopelessness, the arts offer a healthy outlet for self-expression. Especially during the pandemic, it’s natural to search for an escape from stressful situations. For many, that escape comes in the form of theater, fine arts, or music.

No one can deny that health comes first, especially in today’s day and age. Arts students are not asking for anything unreasonable and we understand that large audiences or maskless performances simply aren’t currently possible. But we are asking that the arts be treated equal to every other school activity, and that the state let the show go on.

Ariana Glaser, a student at Smithtown High School East, is the author of "The World I Never Knew" and "She Remembers."