Greely High School Choir practicing outside, 14 feet apart and facing the same way, in accordance with state guidelines. Courtesy / Sarah Bailey

Pandemic precautions have dealt a big blow to school music programs and several southern Maine educators fear those programs won’t fully recover once the pandemic is over.

“Music is the most heavily impacted academic discipline during this pandemic and without change, we fear that there is a bleak outlook for our music program,” said Sandra Barry, who teaches music at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland and serves as the instrumental music coordinator for the South Portland school district.

Barry said state-mandated distancing rules are more stringent for music programs than for physical education.

According to guidelines from Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, chorus instruction can only take place when musicians are outside, facing the same direction and at least 14 feet apart. Masks are encouraged.

State guidelines allow for physical education classes to engage in class activities inside or outside with masks on at a 6-foot distance. If they’re outside and 14 feet apart, students can take their masks off. There is no restriction on which direction students face.

“There’s a clear and obvious inequity between these two disciplines which are governed by the same state agencies,” Sarah Bailey, the choral director at Greely High School, told the SAD 51 school board Nov. 16. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re in a pandemic, it’ll be better next year.’ It won’t be better next year. We’re going to have to rebuild these programs instead of maintaining the robust programs that we have.”

In SAD 51, some students are discouraged and are choosing not to participate in music programs at all.

Fourth and fifth grade online-only chorus has 60% fewer students and fifth grade online-only band has 50% fewer students as compared to when the programs were taught in-person, Bailey said.

Participation in sixth grade band is down 37% and the seventh/eighth grade band is down 24%. High school band has lost 16% of students and high school chorus has lost 17%.

Portland Public Schools music coordinator Audrey Cabral also is concerned about the future of her music programs. Portland is not offering its usual fourth-grade string classes or beginning band for fifth graders because those staff members are needed to teach general music, said Cabral, who oversees the band program at the city’s three middle schools. This year, she is teaching general music at Lincoln Middle School while offering limited virtual band instruction to seventh and eighth grade students weekly just to give them the opportunity to play.

“I don’t believe Portland would ever cut band, orchestra or chorus, but I am concerned that I have lost a lot of kids that I could have kept involved in band,” she said.

Dr. Rick Nickerson, Windham High School’s choir director and music teacher of 34 years, said the pandemic’s impact on his program has been “very challenging.”

“I’m not going to lie to you and paint you a good picture,” Nickerson said. ” In the guidelines that we were given for a safe return to school, it spelled out very clearly that singing was not permitted. How do you teach choir when you can’t sing?”

Barry said teaching kids how to play an instrument is by definition interactive. Trying to show a student where to place fingers for a note, for example, becomes a complex chore when teaching remotely.

“Something that might not even take a word, but need a demonstration, can take many minutes,” Barry said. “And lots of confusion can get in the way or, heaven forbid, the screen freezes in the middle of a demonstration.”

Learning to play as a group is just as important, Barry said, and having each musician in a separate location makes it far more difficult. In an ordinary setting, she said, “we’d be talking over each other, all the noise, the interactive learning, the way the kids share with each other, that’s not possible remotely.”

Nickerson emphasized the loss felt by students at Windham High School.

“They’re frustrated all the way around,” Nickerson said. “You have to remember for the performing arts kids this is their outlet, this is their release, where they put out their energy and their peer group, and to have all those things taken away has had a major impact on them.”

Ensemble groups at Cumberland’s Greely High School have created virtual choirs using teleconferencing software.

“For a lot of people who’ve never done anything like this before, it’s hard to sit in front of a camera alone in your house and smile and act or sing,” said sophomore Jack Gervais.

Westbrook High School senior Caden Dow’s last year in the school band has not been close to what he expected. However, Dow said he remains optimistic and proud to be a member.

“As I’m sure many other schools feel, there is no feeling of normalcy today,” Dow said. “We do next to nothing compared to what we used to do before this pandemic. It is very disheartening to the band community here at Westbrook, but we as a community are very tough people. These are very tough times but we here at Westbrook High will persevere.”

With reporting from Brielle Hardy, Chance Viles, Michael Kelley, Sean Murphy and Emily Bader.

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