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'A million different scenarios' -- indoor music classes at some Maine schools but not others

COVID-19 guidelines for indoor band and chorus rehearsals include similar measures, like masks at all times, social distancing, and shorter classes.

HOULTON, Maine — More than a year into the pandemic that changed life as we know, one of the biggest priorities is returning to some type of "normal" for students and teachers. That desire for in-person education is all-encompassing -- and includes an itch among music groups to play together again in the same room.

For some Maine schools, that has become a reality with innovative solutions. Jason Anderson, the visual and performing arts content specialist with the Maine Department of Education, says his team has been monitoring guidance from the Maine CDC and DHHS closely all year to help schools adopt basic standards allowing them to support instrumental and vocal music education. 

Anderson says as of mid-winter 2021, schools have the option to do music education indoors with certain protocols, although some schools are still choosing to practice outdoors in appropriate weather. Inside learning for both band and chorus requires a number of new measures, like the use of masks at all times, with a slit for musicians' mouthpieces; social distancing of six by six feet for chorus and 10 feet for band; shortening the length of classes; following specific entering and exiting procedures; and making sure musicians are all facing a similar direction.

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"The social-emotional learning needs of students and what the arts and music specifically provide our students are immeasurable," Anderson expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine about the continuous push to make music happen in some capacity. 

At Houlton High School, regular band started up again a couple of weeks ago. Band teacher and RSU 29 music coordinator Kevin Mania says smaller groups of about 37 students practice in the school's auditorium for 30 minutes every other day, using masks and PPE on their instruments. He says those requirements have been worth it. 

"It's been great getting back to a new normal," Mania told NEWS CENTER Maine. 

To manage restrictions last semester, Houlton High School had alternative ensembles with string instruments and percussion. When the option to return to concert band presented itself, Mania did a survey to find out what students' priorities were -- and determined they were interested in concert band but also wanted to continue learning these newer instruments. 

"I think a lot of us had a good understanding of music when we came out of (the alternative ensemble)," Sidney Peabody, a Houlton High School pianist and percussionist, who has started learning guitar, said. "We knew more of the theory...and we knew where it was all coming from."

She says the return to playing concert band instruments hasn't been smooth sailing all of the time -- but they are making steady progress. 

"We laughed ourselves through it," Peabody smiled.

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In Freeport at Mast Landing Elementary, music teacher Ben Potvin has been spending a lot of his time outdoors in the school's parking lot with grades 3-5 students for general music class. He says there, they can sing and move safely, since each student is assigned his or her own space six feet apart. Potvin says he's tried to get classes outdoors for even just a few minutes every day, even during the colder months.

"I only see them from the eyes up, but just to see them light up, and just to be with their peers and doing a creative activity -- it's really magical," Potvin expressed. Another benefit -- Mast Landing School has a decent-sized gym, so band and chorus students can practice there before school and stay socially-distanced. 

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Not all schools have that option, though, which is an aspect of the conversation that has been so frustrating to music educators. 

"We're trying to make a million different scenarios for what could possibly be," Sandy Barry, the president of the Maine Music Educators Association, said to NEWS CENTER Maine, holding up a notepad filled with brainstormed scribbles to the Zoom camera. She says that the size and shape of facilities has been a barrier to some schools when it comes to returning to in-person rehearsals, as have inadequate ventilation systems. Scheduling has also been an issue since groups can't be as large right now for social distancing purposes. 

"My big concern as we start stepping forward (is that) we have to step back and what that will do to us," Barry admitted. 

Maine's music educators are already looking toward plans for the fall -- and Barry says they are trying to keep a "rosy but realistic" mindset, in terms of what it may look like. 

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