Metro Atlanta high school marching bands adjust to pandemic

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

During football’s home opener this month, the Walton High School marching band in Cobb County played from the end zone.

But in Gwinnett County, the Marching Lions at Peachtree Ridge High School took to the field at halftime.

Both bands took care to socially distance. Many members donned masks.

Across metro Atlanta, high school marching bands are adapting their operations because of the coronavirus pandemic. The DeKalb County School District postponed all band and athletic activities until at least the end of September.

In districts where bands can meet, many students are undergoing temperature checks and filling out symptom questionnaires before entering practice.

Masks are now a de facto part of band uniforms and rehearsal necessities.

“Everything is written for the show so they can still social distance,” said Lee Newman, band director at Norcross High School in Gwinnett County. “We’re still trying to do a show, but it’s much simpler, much more toned down.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

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Traveling to band competitions and away games are generally out, in part, because of the difficulty of social distancing on buses. Halftime performances may be from the sidelines or the field, depending on the school.

As a safety measure, some bands, including Norcross, are incorporating fabric bell covers for the ends of woodwind and brass instruments. A study from the University of Colorado indicated they could reduce the spread of aerosols by as much as half.

“A bell cover is basically a mask for your instrument,” Newman said. “Just like a mask absorbs moisture when we’re breathing, a bell cover absorbs moisture coming out of an instrument.”

Brass players in the Norcross band are also using puppy pads — usually used in house training dogs — to catch the spit that drips out of their instruments while playing, Newman said. Even trash bags can be used as makeshift covers for instruments, he said.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Newman had only one student of more than 250 in the Norcross band quit because of the pandemic. Other schools reported more.

The Georgia Music Educators Association provided guidelines for marching bands to return to practice over the summer. The association proposed that students who chose not to participate in the 2020-2021 academic year because of COVID-19 related concerns “should not negatively affect eligibility for the following school year.”

“While marching band is still active, I’m taking full advantage,” said Nicholas Brown, a Peachtree Ridge sophomore who plays the sousaphone. “This is my one opportunity to get out of the house besides occasionally hanging out with one or two friends.”

He is among the estimated 60% of Gwinnett County Public Schools students opting for virtual classes this semester.

Most summer band camps, where students get a jump start on learning music and routines for the fall semester, were shortened or limited to certain groups of performers, according to school districts. Others were canceled.

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William Emde, a Chamblee Charter High School junior and a trombonist, would take any opportunity to play with his band again. This year, he was to be a drum major.

But summer band camp was canceled in June. When DeKalb schools started the new academic year online-only, band class resumed, but marching band did not.

“I would still go to a rehearsal where the band director yelled at us the entire time, just to go to a rehearsal,” he said recently.

In a statement issued last month, DeKalb said it was delaying the opening of all athletic activity and marching bands until at least the end of this month.

“The decision comes after reviewing the latest data from the DeKalb County Board of Health and feedback from parents, coaches and other stakeholders regarding the increase of COVID-19 cases in DeKalb County,” the statement said.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Nadia Meriweather, a percussionist at New Manchester High School in Douglas County, said her parents were initially skeptical about band, for safety reasons. But the precautions band directors took won them over.

New Manchester’s new health measures include social distancing, frequent sanitizing and arranging students so they are not in the direct path of another musician’s airflow. Band members caught without a mask, must do push-ups, Meriweather said.

“Once they came in and saw how we’re going about it, they were really glad,” said Meriweather, a senior, who hopes to participate in band in college. She’s glad can still play in the band this year, but disappointed that the schedule is much thinner than usual.

“This is upsetting because this is my senior year and marching band season is my favorite season,” she said. “The fact we’ve canceled all these performances and parades is really upsetting.”

For many students, band is not just about honing their musical skills. It’s an integral part of their social life and high school experience. Students bond in the long days of band camp and after-school rehearsals. They look forward to milestones, especially those earned as seniors.

“It might seem small, but during band camp, we have a lunch break, and seniors would go first,” said Sean Garner, a clarinet player and senior at Union Grove High School in Henry County. “I’ve been sitting there waiting for years to be the first to go to lunch.”

He never got the chance. Because of the coronavirus, Union Grove held band camp only for percussionists and the color guard. Woodwinds stayed home.

Kristen Garner, Sean’s mother, feels confident that Union Grove has figured out a way for the band to continue playing safely. She’s seen her son flourish because of the band program and was happy when it was allowed to continue.

“We’re thankful for the precautions they’re taking," she said. “We’re thankful they can do something.”

At Norcross, Newman has seen his students follow all the new rules well. They know that if there’s an outbreak, the band could be halted, whether it be for a few weeks or the rest of the season.

“They are so hungry and desperate to have something positive, they are doing everything asked of them to make sure they are safe,” he said.