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Performing Arts State Leaders Continue to Adjust to Fluid COVID-19 Landscape

By Nate Perry on December 16, 2020 hst Print

“Change is the only constant in life.”

Although the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus couldn’t have possibly been referring to the COVID-19 pandemic when he uttered those words, for an overwhelming portion of the American public, his proverb has never held more truth.

The initial shock of adapting to the “new normal” has long subsided; wearing face coverings, constant handwashing and sanitizer application, and maintaining proper social distancing have been widely accepted, and, for the most part, ingrained. And over the course of the summer, it appeared that by these mitigation practices had helped to “slow the spread” and the beginning of a return to life before the pandemic.

However, the fall months brought with them a resurgence in virus cases, causing many states and counties to revert to more restrictive safety guidelines reminiscent of those enacted in the spring. After so much progress had been made, the continued rise of COVID-19 statistics signaled it was once again time for societal institutions – including high school activities associations – to account for these changes within the changes.

Having witnessed the mental anguish students endured from event cancellations that essentially ended the 2019-20 interscholastic year, state organizations in charge of performing arts activities set out to preserve their festivals and competitions with a renewed vigor.

“It has been difficult watching students grieve the loss of their performing arts experiences,” said Susie Knoblauch, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and IHSA administrator for speech, drama, debate, music, tennis and spirit. “Our experiences this spring, summer and fall led us to believe that setting goals to conduct virtual events can energize these student populations.”

When it comes to tools for making sure ‘the show goes on,’ the ability to utilize virtual platforms is a tremendous advantage for associations sponsoring performing arts. The transition process took longer in some states than others but after devoting weeks and months to research and logistics, almost every state has been able to provide its students with online festival options.

“We have become creative problem-solvers,” said Knoblauch. “Many directors and coaches have tested these new virtual platform standards and have found success. Because of their adaptability and the creative leadership in our performing arts communities, I am even more energized to devise virtual plans that have performing arts events culminate in a safe, responsible manner.”

With Illinois being home to some of the strictest mitigation requirements in the nation, Knoblauch is gearing up for an extremely busy winter and spring filled with virtual music and speech events.

Starting in early February, the IHSA will hold the regional (February 6), sectional (February 13) and state final (February 19-20) rounds for speech Individual Events; solo and ensemble and organizational contests for music will be conducted March 6 and April 16-17. The IHSA debate state finals for student congress, public forum, Lincoln-Douglas and policy will take place March 12-13, while sectionals for the contest play, group interpretation and short film segments of IHSA drama will be held March 20, followed by the state finals March 26-27.

The Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA) made the choice to move its events online in late July to keep its students and coaches engaged and give them something to look forward to through all the uncertainty. The decision was a relatively easy one, as WHSFA Executive Director Adam Jacobi states, based on conversations with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the Wisconsin School Music Association, the state department of health and several other state leaders, as well as the success of the WHSFA’s Open Virtual Speech Festival held back in April.

“We made the decision early driven by our joint communication efforts and hearing from coaches that some superintendents – based on county health codes – were going to halt all extracurricular activities without knowing a virtual option existed,” Jacobi said. “Knowing we could do this based on our experience with the Open Virtual Speech Festival, as well as the National Speech and Debate Association and Educational Theatre Association national events in June, gave us the confidence to go virtual.”

The organization successfully completed the district, sectional and state levels of its Online One-Act Theatre Season, which ran from late October to early December and will soon embark on its speech contest season in mid-February, with the culminating state rounds slated for mid-April.

While a return to live, face-to-face contests is obviously preferred, Jacobi believes the positive results generated by the WHSFA’s virtual endeavors could keep them in his list of offerings even after COVID-19 fears have dispersed.

“We have actually picked up schools who haven’t participated any time within the past 10 to 20 years and we have already heard favorable feedback from coaches who envision having an option for really busy students to still have the educational experience from our activities that wouldn’t otherwise participate for various reasons,” Jacobi said. “We have also heard positive things from schools in sparsely populated, rural areas – especially the “Northwoods” region of the state – where travel time is long and snow and other issues have prevented participation in the past.”

In South Dakota, the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) is using online capabilities to help keep its popular All-State Band, All-State Jazz Band, All-State Orchestra and All-State Chorus alive. The events celebrating these groups, which annually recognize 175 students, 50 students, 150 students and 950 students, respectively, from around the state, are set to take place in-person in March, April and May with multiple mitigation strategies and altered schedules. Participating students will be selected from recorded virtual auditions.

“The SDHSAA has been working hard to find alternative ways to approach our All-State Music events,” said Brooks Bowman, SDHSAA assistant executive director and administrator of fine arts activities. “Thanks to the NFHS Aerosol Study, we have been able to base our decisions on scientific data and are finding ways to apply the recommendations that are coming out of that study in ways that may allow us to hold modified, but live, music events. Although the events may not look the same as they have occurred in the past, we are hopeful that we will be able to provide opportunities – either live or virtual – for our fine arts participants.”

The SDHSAA also recently decided to host virtual versions of its solo/ensemble and large group music festivals.

All-State cohorts are being decided the same way in Alaska, although the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) will not hold in-person meetings for its All-State Band, All-State Mixed Choir, All-State Orchestra or All-State Treble Choir. Honorees selected to each group receive a certificate and festival pin, with the very best tapes then re-adjudicated to determine first chair award winners for each band instrument and vocal grouping. In addition to a second certificate, first chair performers also receive a medallion for their achievement.

In other states such as Nebraska and Texas, there is still some hope that speech and debate tournaments can be contested in-person.

According to Jeff Stauss, assistant director at the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA), the Cornhusker State was originally very supportive of holding on-site speech events, citing the successful fall seasons for football, volleyball and other sports, as well as the NSAA’s plans to conduct boys and girls basketball in the winter. Although the NSAA is still pursuing an in-person championship series that would include significant COVID-19 mitigation protocols, virtual speech events will also be contested throughout the season.

“The thought process has changed,” Stauss said. “As the public health situation in our state continues to progress, sections of the state of Nebraska that were initially hesitant to the concept of virtual speech events are now beginning to heavily explore those options. Nebraska has a strong passion for speech. Our coaches and member schools are extremely motivated and dedicated and will ultimately do whatever is necessary to continue to compete.”

To accommodate the virus’ volatility, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) in Texas is planning for both in-person and virtual scenarios for its state series championship events.

An in-person format is preferred by most coaches and competitors, but the UIL has understandably encountered difficulties in trying to make this happen. Aside from struggling to secure facilities for both its state championships and qualifying-level tournaments, there are concerns regarding the interaction and close contact connected to mixing students throughout such a large state in the same venue. Furthermore, there is concern that some schools may not be able to attend any sort of in-person event because of travel bans imposed by their districts.

“The problem in Texas is that students are coming from all over the place – different geographical regions that are hundreds of miles away and in different situations pertaining to COVID,” said Jana Riggins, state director of speech and debate for the UIL. “Once they get (to a potential in-person state meet), I fully believe that with all the different mitigation techniques we’re establishing – reducing the number of state qualifiers, pre-tournament screenings, temperature checks, social distancing in competition areas, decontamination defoggers, e-ballots, restrictions on audiences, no medal winner drapings, etc. – we can protect the students. I think the safety protocols are about as tight as they can be.”

Optimism can also be taken from the UIL Congress debate regional meets, which began November 2 with the option to be held in-person or virtually. Of the 20 regions, 11 opted to go virtual; and with roughly half of the regions holding successful tournaments onsite, Riggins feels that running in-person events – or at least a State Congress Meet in mid-February – is still feasible.

“Time will tell if situations are improved three months from now,” she said. “The feedback from the State Advisory Committee, along with some region clerks from smaller schools, was, ‘we really hope (the State Congress Meet) can be in-person, and if that means moving it back on the calendar – we’re game.’ ‘We understand if you have to flip it back to virtual – that’s okay – but we want to hold out hope, and we will be there if you hold it in-person.’”