Can arts in schools endure in this COVID age?

Innovation is great. But the hurdles are daunting

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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

While the Oak Park and River Forest school districts, D97, D90 and D200, have been releasing various plans for the fall as communities grapple with how best to handle learning during a pandemic, the information on performing and visual arts had not been announced in initial plans.

For things like band, orchestra and chorus, the audio delay makes simultaneous group work impossible. Much of theater is affected in the same way. And certain visual arts, such as wheel throwing and dark room photography simply cannot be done at home. How can families and students know what to expect?    

Oak Park and River Forest High School is planning to have all remote learning for Fall 2020. The administration, through Karin Sullivan, executive director of communications and community relations, released information to Wednesday Journal on band, orchestra and chorus on Thursday, July 30. D200 has not allowed teachers to talk to the press, an unusual move, since its teachers have regularly spoken to Wednesday Journal for numerous arts stories. 

The remote learning plan for music for Fall 2020 includes individual learning, small group and large ensemble work. According to the plan, students will work on solo and short ensemble pieces either selected by students or their teacher. Musicians will also receive guided instruction through large ensemble pieces led by the teacher/conductor. To put the music together, the students will learn recording and editing skills. Throughout the process, teachers will be engaged with students and there will be a focus on growth as individual musicians, according to the plan. 

Parents have reported orchestra students have had a Zoom meeting with Patrick Pearson. Other teachers delivering this plan for their students are Anthony Svejda (band), Meredith McGuire (chorus) and Drew Fredrickson (band/chorus). A new division head has been hired, Dr. Semaj Coleman.    

D200 administration has not announced how theater and crew classes or cocurricular plays and musicals will be handled. It also has not addressed visual arts. In a Facebook post, an OPRF art teacher responded to parental concerns over their students' scheduled work on their art portfolios. The teacher assured them, "I am working on multiple ways to engage my students and help them develop strong portfolios for college submission."

There have been no announcements on extracurricular arts at the high school. 

River Forest School District 90 is planning to have in-person learning for elementary, and a hybrid model for middle school, with a virtual option for those who want it. 

Dawne Simmons, communication coordinator for D90, said, "Decisions about extracurricular activities — such as chorus, orchestra, yearbook, etc. — have not been finalized yet. The district continues to consider how to provide these activities while maintaining the safety of students and teachers and following social distancing guidelines." Band is also an extracurricular activity at D90. 

Chorus may present the biggest challenge for in-person practice and performance. 

It is known that aerosol droplets are present while singing without a mask and can spread COVID-19 if a singer is infected with the virus. 

For D90, curriculars in the arts will continue. "Also, specials classes — such as art, music and STEM — will still be provided to students. Details will be forthcoming," Simmons said.

Oak Park District 97 was planning for hybrid learning for Fall 2020, but now is expecting to go with full remote learning for the first trimester. 

Class-time visual art for elementary schools will continue with what was in place in the spring, according to Jenny Raia, who teaches art at Longfellow Elementary. This includes "weekly remote-learning assignments, fun resources for kids and inspiration for creative exploration," according to the dedicated website. Assignments are customized by grade from K through five. 

Teachers who lead in-class music "have been meeting all summer to prepare for multiple scenarios," according to Percy Julian Middle School Music teacher Andrew Seymour. 

He also said cocurriculars, such as Men's Ensemble, a choral group he leads, are going to be offered remotely.

While there is no word on how classroom band or orchestra will be held, instrument sign ups for new students wanting to take part in instrumental music in 4th and 5th grades are expected to take place remotely. 

On middle school theater, both Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School's BRAVO and Julian's CAST are poised to offer something for their students. 

BRAVO's spring musical Moana Jr. was completed virtually and edited together into a final performance, A Virtual Voyage. More than 50 students recorded their own vocals and choreography, and improvised costumes and sets. BRAVO also offered virtual summer camps. Tina Reynolds, BRAVO artistic director and program manager, has program ideas for fall, which will be released shortly.  

Bill McGlynn, program director of CAST, said Julian students were about to put on two studio shows in the spring, Inherit the Wind and Last Morning at the Evening Post, when they had to cancel their performances due to COVID-19.

"We then scrambled to invent virtual rehearsals for CAST Jr.s' Lion King and our next scheduled play entitled Greenhorn," he said. "We were able to work with our students online and everyone was very happy with the results."

While they cancelled their summer programming, CAST has been collaborating with local groups to strengthen inter-program relationships, according to McGlynn, including Oak Park Education Foundation, the Oak Park police department and Hepzibah. They also met with BRAVO and the CAST Council and artist mentors to share ideas. And, they "revamped the CAST website, which has become more and more the main port of entry for Julian students and families and in a virtual learning environment is a crucial 'face' of the program," McGlynn said. It will be revealed soon.

As for the program, CAST is left with more questions than answers. Without ticket sales in the spring and funds raised from the lunch program, there is less in the coffer to put on productions (although some families chose to donate summer camp funds). It is unknown if CAST will have access to the building or if any in-person work can take place. 

"In times like these, we can only go back to what we do know — that theatre is a very important part of children's lives, that the CAST staff is ready and willing to work, that CAST families want and need to participate in CAST and that we will figure this out," McGlynn said.

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