County high school bands take COVID-19 precautions

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Music can once again be heard at high schools around the county as students return for band camp, and many practices have been established to prevent COVID-19 exposure.

Band directors around the county spoke to the Daily Mountain Eagle about how band camp — which brings band students together to practice each summer — has been different this year. 

All band directors said they are following guidelines released by the Alabama High School Athletics Association on screening procedures for COVID-19. Per those procedures, band students at all schools are being temperature checked prior to practice and are required to answer an exposure questionnaire. 

"We're taking every precaution that we can to make sure that the students are safe while they are here," Carbon Hill High School's band director Patricia Moore said. "My kids understand that it is a risk and they have been great and flexible the whole time."

Moore said the school will have around 35 members in the band this year, and, in addition to everyday health screenings, band students are also being asked to social distance and wear masks when they are not playing an instrument.  

Jeremy McFall, Dora High School's band director, said he has changed practice hours as another social distancing measure for the roughly 80 member band.

"The biggest thing I've done is cut the number of hours of practice time back to where we don't have breaks to where we have to eat on campus or anything like that," McFall said. "That's the biggest change for us."

He also said band students will likely not wear traditional band uniforms this year, due to a cleaning expense that would be nearly doubled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Between student safety and budget costs, it was an easy decision," McFall said.

Curry High School, which has a smaller band of around 30 members, does plan to continue traditional uniform wear and hold fundraisers to cover additional cleaning costs.

Curry band director Allison Russell said even though procedural aspects of band camp have changed, her band students have taken everything in stride.  

"Our students are leaders, and they are totally on board.," she said. "They're not just throwing these precautions to the side. They are actively helping to remind each other." 

Jason Lipscomb, the director of Jasper High School's band, concurred.  

"They have been really positive. I think because they haven't seen each other in such a long time, they're just happy to be at band rehearsal to see their friends and get to play music," he said. "The kids have been really great through the process. They've done everything that has been asked of them. Anytime they might be closer than 6 feet together they are wearing their masks. They've done a great job with that."

Like Dora, Jasper High School does not plan to have band students wear traditional uniforms this year. For other schools, it's a wait and see decision.

All band directors praised their band members for wearing masks and adjusting to social distancing guidelines, which will change how bands look during performance routines this fall.

"I think all of our shows are going to be different — different than what the public is used to seeing," Oakman High School's band director, Casey Woods, said. "It's going to be hard to do standard routines six feet apart the whole time."

Many — if not all — high school bands in the county practiced for the last time in March, so band camp is also serving as a catch-up session for students this year.  

"It's been four months. It's been a long time since we've played. We had the Walker County Honor Band Concert on March 13, and that was the last thing that our kids participated in, and we didn't come back to school," Woods said. "We didn't have spring concerts. We didn't play at graduation ceremonies like we normally do, and it's been a long time since we've played."

With recommendations changing each day and the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, band directors are also living in a time of uncertainty regarding how band play will occur this year. 

"It's definitely hard to plan for as band directors," Landon Nelson, band director at Sumiton Christian School, said. 

Like city and county schools, Nelson said the 25-member band is being screened each day and members have been encouraged to wear masks. Masks have even be placed over the base of some instruments to prevent droplet spread. 

"I want my kids to be as safe as possible, and I'm going to do everything I can to keep them safe," Nelson said.

Band directors are also having to consider the impact concession sales at football games could have for band revenue. Typically bands operate a concession stand at football games to raise money for a variety of band needs.

"We're worried about what football attendance is going to be like and what our sales are going to be like," Cordova High School band director Sara Lipscomb said.

While preventing COVID-19 is its own challenge, band directors also have to be diligent in making sure students do not overheat during band camp. All directors always encourage hydration, nutrition, and frequent breaks to prevent heat exhaustion.

Band directors also spoke of how band competitions likely won't occur this year, which has perhaps been the most difficult blow for students.

"It's highly unlikely that the kids will get to compete this year which is a really tough thing for them because they're working so hard," Russell said. "They love supporting their football team and love being able to perform for their community, but there's no way to explain the pride they feel when they get to go and compete."

"We have so few answers right now about what everything is going to be like. That can be difficult for kids to understand, but they've really been great," Jason Lipscomb said. "We just want to make sure that the kids get the best experience they can possibly get under the circumstances. They've already had so much taken away from them, so I guess that's really my number one goal is to make sure it's as normal for them as possible."

Band directors are asking for patience when the school year starts back and an understanding that performances will be different.

"We just ask that the community understands and works with us. It's definitely going to be a weird year, to say the least," Moore said.

Woods added, "I just ask that folks bear with us. Things are going to be different — not only in the band world but also in the athletic world. It's just something we're going to have to get used to. It's not going to be the traditional band show.

"We want to have a great show, but you've got to take care of your kids, too, and that's really the most important part."

Sara Lipscomb said regardless of how this year may be different for band students, she's certain they will put on a great show and make their respective schools proud.

"Band kids are just really resilient, kids in general are," she said. "I think they all have just really missed being able to get together and make music." 

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