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Outdoor Singing, Zoom Plays: How School Arts Programs Are Adapting To Pandemic

Two teenagers in white face masks
Johanna Pastel, Courtesy
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Lake Region Union High School theater students rehearse for an outdoor Halloween walk on Monday. While the state has offered COVID-19 guidance for sports and other general school activities, it hasn't given many specific directions for arts programs.

Vermont schools have moved to Phase III of reopening, which means an increase in in-person learning. And while some subject areas have received specific guidance, the arts have had to be creative.

The 26 students in the select choir at North Country Union High School in Newport are planning to go outside and sing no matter how cold it gets this winter. And in Newport, where the north wind blows off Lake Memphremagog, it gets cold — the average high last winter was below 30 degrees.

“My students and I are willing to go outside all year round, in the cold, bundled up,” said North Country choral director Danielle Carrier. “My kids are talking about wearing their snowsuits and just sitting in the snow, and singing away.”

The choir has to go outside because singing increases the amount of respiratory droplets in the air, which experts warn increases the potential for COVID-19 spread. They also stand 6 or more feet apart, and wear masks.

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The Vermont Agency of Education continues to release COVID-19 safety guidelines for schools. They range from the general, like distanced desks, to the more specific, like a list of what car surfaces to disinfect for drivers ed. Fall sports received direction at the start of the school year, and guidelines for winter sports are expected by the end of October.

But a lack of specificity for arts has been frustrating for teachers like Danielle Carrier.

“It does seem like a lot of effort was put into giving some very specific and careful guidelines to figure out exactly how to make things work, and for us, it was just a very general statement of, ‘Do it outside!’” she said.

"My students and I are willing to go outside all year round, in the cold, bundled up. My kids are talking about wearing their snowsuits and just sitting in the snow, and singing away." — Danielle Carrier, North Country Union High School choral director

Theater has also changed course. It’s hard for audiences to gather, for actors to speak loudly to a group, and to social distance on and off stage. Some schools are putting on plays that were written to be performed on Zoom.

Others, like Lake Region Union High School in Orleans, have shifted outdoors. The fall play there isn’t going to be an actual play; it will be a guided walk in the woods on Halloween, accompanied by dramatic recordings of students reading works by Edgar Allan Poe.

Putting on a totally new kind of performance isn’t easy, especially when not all students are in person to plan and rehearse. But Lake Region theater director Johanna Pastel says while the level of challenge is high, so is the enthusiasm.

“We’re just trying to think as creatively as possible,” she said in a phone call with VPR. “And it’s kind of fun to have a chance to throw everything we normally do out, and think about, OK what are the creative options? 'Cause we’re theater people, that’s what we do!”

At the Integrated Arts Academy, a K-5 school in Burlington, music, theater, and visual arts are part of everyday learning. The school’s arts coach Emily Titterton says especially right now, art is a way for students to process the world.

“The human experience is what is the content of art," she said. "This is what we’re experiencing right now, let’s make some art about it."

At the magnet school in Burlington’s Old North End, some classes are currently taught outdoors, but lesson plans have changed to keep students both warm and COVID-safe. Instead of singing in music class, kids might look at how a composer tells a story through song. And instead of students heading to the art room, supplies are wheeled into classrooms on carts.

"We're just trying to think as creatively as possible. And it's kind of fun to have a chance to throw everything we normally do out, and think about, OK what are the creative options? 'Cause we’re theater people, that’s what we do!" — Johanna Pastel, Lake Region Union High School theater director

Back at North Country Union High School, band students have been outdoors just like choir students. They keep a foot on their music stands so they don’t tip over on the uneven ground, and clothespins keep the wind from stealing their sheet music.

“Even though we have to do it outside, it's windy and it's not ideal, we still get to do it,” said Tori Young, a senior at North Country in both band and choir. “I think for a lot of us, it’s why we come to school."

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But band instruments won’t be able to function outside through the winter. Valves stick. Metal contracts. Players’ lips could get stuck to mouthpieces. So while the choir says they can make it all winter long, band will have to go inside. There are indoor options, like covers to minimize respiratory droplets spread by wind and brass instruments, as well as online learning tools.

North Country band director Bill Prue hopes he won’t have to teach virtually:

“Students are in band and chorus to sing and play instruments, they're not in it to be at home recording themselves," he said. "They’re here to be part of the group."

Prue is also the president of the Vermont Music Educators Association (VMEA). In the absence of state guidance, the VMEA put out its own guide to help music teachers plan classroom activities this year. It lists the obvious, like don’t share instruments, as well as suggestions, like one-way traffic out of rehearsal rooms.

"Students are in band and chorus to sing and play instruments, they're not in it to be at home recording themselves. They're here to be part of the group." — Bill Prue, North Country Union High School band director

Prue says he hopes that as state officials determine the health and safety guidelines for winter sports that are coming out at the end of the month, they’ll also consider ways to keep the arts safely in-person.

“It would be a shame not to have a basketball game, but it would be a shame —  even more, honestly in my opinion — to not have music classes indoors,” Prue said.

North Country choral director Danielle Carrier would rather not sing outside all winter. But knowing that her students are up for it, she said, is amazing.

“The resilience of these kids and their dedication to their art, that they will do whatever they can to sing or play or dance or act — you know, we’re seeing this across the board — is remarkable,” Carrier said.

It's supposed to rain in Newport this week, but there's no snow yet.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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