In song and on stage, school arts help the return from pandemic

Performing arts will be critical to help students, communities build back from lockdowns, educators say. They want to make sure programs get help

To use an apt analogy, arts education has sometimes felt a little like an orchestra’s second violin during the COVID-19 pandemic, both in New Jersey and nationally.

Special masking and distancing restrictions were placed on music classes to slow the spread of the coronavirus, remote instruction was especially challenging, and arts education in general was sometimes overlooked in the academic hierarchy.

But as New Jersey’s schools have started to open up this spring, the arts have helped lead the way and provided an important salve for students to reengage in their schools and communities.

And to advocates and educators, it’s a role that could prove even more critical going into the next school year.

Such sentiment was on stage, literally, in East Brunswick earlier this month, when the annual East Brunswick High School musical — “Sondheim Under the Stars” — was held outdoors at the township’s community center.

It was the first time the students had been before a live audience in more than a year.

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“It’s amazing,” said Keira Marques, a junior in the performance. “I’m just so used to sitting at home and doing nothing, and it’s just really nice to get back out there and do what I love. I miss it a lot.”

Added Michelle DaGrosa, the district’s arts supervisor: “I know that for so many of our students — and for me when I was in school — music and the arts, theater, they’re family. There’s a safe space and there’s an outlet for expression which is so, so important.”

Advocates for social, emotional benefits  

It’s a sentiment that advocates are pressing, too, not just for the importance of arts education in and of itself but also the social and emotional benefits for students who will be longing for these connections.

Bob Morrison has been leading the charge as director of ArtsEd New Jersey, the advocacy group that has put arts education front and center throughout the pandemic.

The latest is a public campaign highlighting the billions in additional pandemic-recovery aid that will come from Washington to New Jersey’s schools and where arts education can fit into that recovery, especially in mental health and so-called “social and emotional learning.”

“This is a unique opportunity to embed social and emotional learning inside the school’s curriculum not just in the arts but in all content areas,” Morrison said. “We can really make it part of the fabric and fiber of the building.”

Credit: (AP Photo/Haven Daily)
File photo: March 2, 2021, students during a music class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, California; the school just reopened on Feb. 22, 2021, for in-person learning.

The mental health aspects of arts education have been a post-pandemic cause taken up nationally by various groups, too, including the National Education Association, the teachers union.

“Arts educators are a secret weapon in fostering positive mental health for kids,” said Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.

“The arts are so important for giving our kids opportunities for expression and feeling just competent during the school day,” he said in a recent interview with Chalkbeat Newark.

Arts educators to receive guidance

But there are logistics to work out first, and the ArtsEd organization is also expected to put out new guidance to the state’s educators in June outlining some best practices in each of their fields.

The extent of masking, for example, will be a prime concern. Gov. Phil Murphy has decreed that schools will operate fully in-person in the fall, but at least some masking would likely still be required.

That would certainly extend to music education, where masking has been among the biggest challenges, with masks needed on both the students and also any horns and other wind instruments they may be playing. ArtsEd has been impressing on state officials an international health study that examined the extent of contamination from musical performance and the effectiveness of both face and instrument masks.

“The masking will be the most important protocol,” Morrison said of the fall. “It is safe to say there will be some mask requirements, and we should anticipate for that.”

That is not the case for after-school performances like the one that took place in East Brunswick, one of countless such events taking place across the state and in its schools.

“The sights and sounds of performing arts are blooming with the spring,” Morrison said. “It’s been great to see. We’re on a trajectory to get the arts back to where they will be fully functional in the fall.”