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Northeast Ohio Schools Adopt New Safety Rules For Clubs And Sports

Richie Pokrywka, a senior at St. Edward High School, helps the marching band keep time as they practice in the high school's parking lot on August 18, 2020. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]
Richie Pokrywka, a senior at St. Edward High School, helps the marching band keep time as they practice in the high school's parking lot on August 18, 2020. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]

Homeroom: A Return to Learning

This story is part of ideastream's special series examining the challenges and perils of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a “normal” year, the ring of the last afternoon school bell signals the end of classes and the beginning of many coveted extracurricular activities.

Athletes head to the soccer and football fields while marching band members grab their instruments to rehearse halftime repertoires. Harmonies fill the hallways as students gather in the choir room and theater students prepare for fall musicals.

This school year, however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, after-school activities are going to look quite different.

Local school districts are facing tough choices about whether to return to in-person classes or to start the year fully online. Despite the uncertainty, many Cuyahoga County schools are moving forward with fall sports and other fall extracurricular activities – with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

Marching band members at St. Edward High School in Lakewood use fabric barriers, called bell covers, to try minimize the spread of aerosols while playing instruments. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]

Marching Band Marches On

On a recent late-summer evening in Lakewood, the St. Edward High School marching band could be heard practicing from blocks away.

The Marching Eagles have been rehearsing together for most of the summer, like many Northeast Ohio high school bands.

“I’ve just been caved up in my room until this started, and it’s gotten me off my feet,” said Richie Pokrywka, a senior at St. Ed’s and a trumpet player in the band.

The band is comprised of 56 students from all-boys St. Ed’s and St. Joseph Academy, an all-girls high school in Cleveland.

All students and staff members wear masks during rehearsals, except when playing instruments, said band director Angelo Kortyka. They stay 6 feet apart from each other while practicing and marching, and students get their temperatures checked when they arrive, he said.

Implementing these measures was not too much of a heavy lift due to the band’s size, Kortyka said.

“A lot of our weaknesses became strengths through this,” he said. “We’re a smaller ensemble, so it was much easier to divide and conquer the groups. It was much easier for us to meet the guidelines.”

Grace Davis, a senior at St. Joseph Academy, practices with other color guard members on Aug. 18. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]

Whether marching bands will play during halftime at football games is still uncertain. Still, students are happy they can see their friends and play their instruments, said Catherine Chambers, a junior at St. Joseph Academy and clarinetist.

“It’s a little bit of normal back into my life. At least I have something that’s not completely confusing and changing all the time,” she said.

Senior snare drum player Dermot Fox agreed.

"When we came back to [the] marching band, I felt like, a new burst of energy. I felt ignited and I was ready to get at it. I felt like I had a purpose again," he said.

Students are hoping to safely continue with other extracurriculars as well, such as theater.

“This is more important than everyone thinks,” said Pokrywka. “Experiencing this stuff and having the times, even in the worst of conditions, with your friends… is huge, and it really makes a difference in everyday life and your four years of high school.”

Grace Davis, a senior at St. Joseph Academy and member of the band’s color guard, said she adjusted to the precautions faster than she had anticipated.

“Having all of us go through it together made it a lot easier for us all to adjust, and us all sort of learn from each other about what works best for us. We pretty quickly snapped into the routine,” Davis said.

Kortyka designated a few students to be in charge of reminding their peers of safety guidelines, in addition to the adult staff, he said.

“When they got back together to see each other for the first time, they gravitated to their old habits – which is, stand around in circles and talk, and the mask, obviously, is an afterthought,” he said. “These new habits are starting to bake in. It’s not been a challenge.”

The main challenges for the band this summer, Kortyka said, involved coordination with other extracurricular groups. Normally, the football and soccer teams occasionally practice off-campus. But that was prohibited this year due to COVID-19, he said, leading to scheduling conflicts between the different groups that use the field for practice, he said.

“We were able to roll with these punches,” he said. “These little setbacks have been an annoyance, but we’ve been able to make it work pretty easily.”

Kortyka also purchased pieces of fabric called bell covers that block the openings of instruments like trumpets, clarinets, and tubas, to reduce the spread of aerosol particles and saliva while students are practicing, he said.

“We had to get creative,” he said. “[Band directors] specialize in getting people to stand 6 feet or more apart and not touch their faces.”

Marching band members practice a number for their fall repertoire on August 18, 2020. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]

Other Northeast Ohio high schools have developed their own plans for bands to try to practice safely. North Royalton’s band, for example, organized a schedule instructing different instrument sections to practice in various locations outside, such as the front lawn, bleachers and parking lot, rotating with different instructors every so often.

Medina High School’s marching band issued a drop-off schedule, directing students to follow a specific traffic pattern to mitigate social distancing concerns.

The Shows Go On For Show Choir And Theater

Just like instrumental music, vocal music programs at area high schools are also making changes to their rehearsals during the upcoming school year. After-school activities that involve singing and dancing are traditionally held indoors, said Brian Fancher, director of choir and theater at Mayfield High School.

“It really falls under a lot of the categories of a contact sport, in some ways,” Fancher said. “There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of breathing when you’re doing some intense choreography, and you’re certainly in close contact with people.”

The Mayfield school district is conducting classes virtually for the first nine weeks of the school year, so Fancher will work with his students through video calls. One option for the show choir, he said, is for students to learn choreography and music on their own using recordings he sends them, rather than live, in-person rehearsals.

“Being able to have that instantaneous feedback is really important, and it’s pretty much impossible, honestly, over Zoom,” he said.

Then, students could Zoom with him one by one so he could provide feedback, he said.

Another idea is for students to record themselves individually and Fancher would edit the videos into a virtual show choir performance to share with the community, he said.

Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District is following a hybrid model, where students spend half a school day in-person and the other half at home. Choir members at the high school will rehearse outside with masks on during in-person class time, and via Zoom with music teachers when classes are held at home, said director Nathan Bachofsky.

Instead of a fall play, the current plan is for students to conduct a weekly “mini-series” TV show, where students write and direct fiction and non-fiction stories, Bachofsky said.

In Mayfield, Fancher is still figuring out what to do about the school’s fall musical. Restrictions that would need to be put in place for a production to be safe, such as wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, would be difficult to implement, he said.

“It could be pretty crippling, honestly, for a full-on musical performance,” he said.

One possible option is for students to perform digital one-man-shows, or “stage” a performance in person – meaning they sing through the songs while at a safe distance apart, but not act or dance, he said.

Even if a traditional fall musical is not possible this year, Fancher said he is hopeful that local coronavirus numbers will improve so that a spring production could go forward.

In the meantime, he is trying to come up with best practices to preserve the friendships and relationships students form while participating in show choir and musical activities together, he said. 

“I’m trying to figure out how I can best cultivate that culture,” he said.

Cross Country, Off And Running

Many students involved in cross country are already sprinting toward the start of the season.

Initially, the state designated cross country a “contact sport” because of concerns about a large number of participants typically in a race, said Anjanette Whitman, head track and cross country coach at Lutheran West High School in Rocky River.

“The starting line and the finish line were the biggest concern,” Whitman said. “They were concerned over that many people being in a more centralized area all at the same time, and able to socially distance appropriately.”

Whitman represents teams in Cuyahoga, Geauga and Lake counties in the statewide association for cross country and track coaches. She and other board members put together a list of recommendations on social distancing and other COVID-19 safety precautions for runners.

After the coaches submitted suggestions, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) reclassified cross country as a “low-to-no contact sport,” which permitted teams to hold competitions with other schools, she said.

Contact sports, such as football, soccer and field hockey, were allowed to practice and train over the summer, but could not engage in competitions with other schools, per ODH guidance.

Cross country athletes at Lutheran West High School in Rocky River run at a recent practice. [Anjanette Whitman / Lutheran West High School]

One of the recommendations for cross country meets is to have runners stay 6 feet apart from each other at the starting line, Whitman said.

“We needed to make sure the runners were spread out enough on the starting line, so that from the start, as they move forward, there was enough space for them to be separated,” Whitman said.

Another option to maintain distancing is to conduct smaller races, or have runners start at different intervals, she added. The recommendations also suggest runners not report to the starting line until five minutes before the race to reduce exposure, and not bring their water bottles to the line, she said.

Specific rules for each meet will be determined by the school hosting the meet, Whitman said. The coaches’ association is putting together additional recommendations for schools before the season starts, she said.

Whitman is confident cross country will have a season this year – it’s just going to look different, and everyone is going to have to comply with the rules, she said.

For her students, this hasn’t been an issue, she said.

“They listen to everything I say, [and] they comply with it, because they’re so happy to be back at practice. They’re so happy to have something to look forward to,” she said. “This has been really hard. You can see their anxiety just melt away when they’re around each other.”

Speech And Debate

Sometimes referred to as an “academic sport,” speech and debate will also operate differently when it starts in October. Tournaments, which draw multiple teams to one school, will likely be held virtually, said Paul Moffitt, Executive Director of the Ohio Speech and Debate Association (OSDA).

That’s the official recommendation from the OSDA’s board of directors, made up of coaches from across the state, he said.

“It’s really going to be a season where we have to be flexible,” Moffitt said.

Coaches are currently figuring out technical and competitive logistics of conducting performances over video calls, he said.

“The biggest concern is that… you lose that energy that you get from a live, in-person tournament. I think it creates a different kind of performance,” he said.

Students in some categories may be able to pre-record speeches to be judged, he said. But for categories like live debates, pre-recorded videos would jeopardize the integrity of the event, Moffitt said.

In categories where two students give a speech or debate together, such as duo interpretation, competitors may need to conduct their speech in person at school, with proper safety procedures in place, he said.

The national speech and debate tournament was held virtually this past summer, and Moffitt said coaches are using feedback from that competition to help guide this season. A big concern of coaches is that students who have access to better technology and recording devices will get better scores, he said.

OSDA board members are developing rules for technology and recordings to ensure that situations like that won’t happen, he said. They also plan to give financial support to schools that may need more technology resources.

Generally Speaking

Gov. Mike DeWine is permitting all high school sports to commence this fall, but spectators will be limited to parents and people close to the athlete only, he said in a recent press conference.

Per OHSAA guidelines, marching bands are not permitted to travel with teams to away games.

DeWine also said teams and leagues can choose to suspend sports until the spring.

Some Cuyahoga County school districts, such as Parma, have a petition calling for fall sports to be moved to a spring schedule.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.