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Akron Firestone Performing Arts Students Won't Be Silenced By COVID-19

Firestone CLC Choir Director Megan Meyer with members of the high school's bass choir. [Jenny Hamel / Ideastream Public Media]
Firestone Community Learning Center Bass Choir

It’s not easy keeping K-12 students and staff safe from COVID-19 as the delta variant storms through communities. It’s especially challenging at a high school where the arts is the focus, and singing, acting and playing instruments are part of the curriculum.

Students at Firestone Community Learning Center, home of the Akron School of the Arts, are loving being back in person after almost a year of remote learning. And the staff is doing everything they can to make sure the kids remain COVID safe.

Watching Firestone Choir Director Megan Meyer lead the bass choir in a rendition of the barbershop standard “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,” you can see the safety protocols in place.

With sheet music in their hands, about 25 students stand at their chairs, six feet apart from each other. Keeping that distance while singing in a choir is not ideal, according to Meyer.

“When you're in a choir, you're usually shoulder to shoulder, where you can hear and blend. And so that's something to get used to. And you have to become a very independent singer, which is good in its own way, but a challenge for young singers,” Meyer said.

Bass choir members use singing masks made by the Broadway Relief Project and stand six feet apart from each other. [Jenny Hamel / Ideastream Public Media]

The students wear black masks that stick out several inches to create a pocket around the mouth. They’re three-layered singing masks designed to catch the singer’s droplets. They can be stifling to sing with, says student John McGroff.

“You're kind of just breathing in what you already breathed out most of the time. So, it's hard to catch your breath and get a good breath to be able to sing a phrase as loud and full as you want it to be,” McGroff said.

But students understand, the point is to keep the coronavirus out of the air. There are other protocols in place, in the same vein.

“We sing for 30 minutes and then we have to do an air break so that the air can recirculate through the filters,” Meyer said. “And so after ten minutes, then we can sing again or change spaces. So, I like to go outside or we'll sing in the auditorium.”

Akron Public Schools is not leaving anything to chance, so a district-wide mask mandate and social distancing have been enforced since the start of the school year. And the numbers show it's working. Firestone reports seven COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year.

“As a district and as a school, we're making a decision to keep kids safe. But the curriculum goes on, right?” said Firestone Theater Director Mark Zimmerman. “So the dancers are still dancing. Theater kids are still acting. The choirs are still singing. The band is still marching and playing. These things go on. But we just have to apply the COVID restrictions to them.”

Seniors Lanese Lewis and Brandon Drone in Firestone's theater department, giving the back-in-class experience a thumbs up. [Jenny Hamel / Ideastream Public Media]

Still, the safety protocols have been particularly harsh on Zimmerman’s theater kids.

“We can't start to do the things that we normally do, which is have a full season of musicals and plays,” he said. “For us, so far, that's not a possibility. So we can't have auditions, we can't have rehearsals.”

At Firestone, the curtains have been drawn since spring of 2020. At the start of the pandemic, students were told their spring production would not be performed in front of an audience. For theater kids, especially the seniors, those big productions are the crown jewel of the high school experience.

The students hope the pandemic gets better so they can start planning for a big production later this year.

For now, they're acting in class and expressing themselves as part of smaller theatrical projects. 

In one assignment, a class was broken up into small groups assigned to create a video telling an incoming freshman about classroom rules. Just the chance to be creative and back in the classroom with others is a plus, says senior Lanese Lewis.

“It's the first project I've worked on with multiple people in a while,” Lewis said. “And it's nice to be in person and, like, not everything be delayed on Zoom and stuff. It’s more fun too.”

And that’s how Firestone’s musicians feel, happy to play together after time spent apart.

The pianist lets the keys fly as Firestone's jazz ensemble plays the standard "All of Me" in their practice room. [Jenny Hamel/ Ideastream Public Media]

While the marching band, as a rule, practices outside, a small group of students in the jazz ensemble plays in a large rehearsal room.  The musicians are distanced and wear masks. Students playing wind instruments have masks with flaps on them that flip up as they play. There are bell covers for the instruments as well.

The students in the arts program at Firestone High are adapting to the in-person classroom experience, because playing and performing and dancing in somewhat strange conditions is better than the alternative — not performing at all.

"For me personally, what's great is being in the same room with the students. So, having those same sort of interactions that the students are having with each other. I get to bounce ideas off of them and I get to collaborate with students in a way that's just not possible, virtually," Firestone CLC Theater Director Mark ZImmerman said. [Jenny Hamel/ Ideastream Public Media]