Madison Heights Bishop Foley wrestlers and coaches are pictured earlier this year. With some sports programs having been previously shut down due to COVID-19, Foley wrestling coach Berney Gonzales said it is “huge” that his team can be together and compete.

Madison Heights Bishop Foley wrestlers and coaches are pictured earlier this year. With some sports programs having been previously shut down due to COVID-19, Foley wrestling coach Berney Gonzales said it is “huge” that his team can be together and compete.

Photo provided by Berney Gonzales

Pandemic impacts school music, sports, theater programs

By: Mark Vest | Metro | Published January 26, 2022

 The West Bloomfield High School Concert Band performs at a concert Oct. 20. Fine Arts programs have returned to live performances after being shut down for a period of time.

The West Bloomfield High School Concert Band performs at a concert Oct. 20. Fine Arts programs have returned to live performances after being shut down for a period of time.

Photo provided by Sheryl Hauk


METRO DETROIT — It has been nearly two years since the world was changed by news of a worldwide pandemic.

Among the many ways society was altered, the education system was perhaps forever changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with schools ushering in virtual learning.

Aside from academics, extracurricular activities such as music, sports and theater have also been impacted.

West Bloomfield High School Principal Eric Pace said that, from the spring of 2020 into the fall of that year, extracurricular activities were “completely shut down.”

“That was tough on our students because that’s kind of an outlet for them. It can be therapeutic, and it can be a good social growth tool, and they weren’t able to do that,” Pace said. “We did small-scale stuff in spring of 2020 virtually — like choir concerts, band concerts, things like that.”

Olivia Zang is the district-wide music facilitator for Birmingham Public Schools, supporting K-12 music for all Birmingham Public Schools.

She is also an orchestra teacher at Birmingham Covington School, and she discussed challenges that have come as a result of the pandemic.

“Trying to teach music through a screen is always challenging, of course, but we have a really fabulous staff of music teachers who collaborated and worked together to bring some quality student-centered instruction beyond just a mere performance-based agenda, which is what, as music teachers, we’re used to,” Zang said. “We’re used to putting on performances and concerts, singing songs and making music, so we had to challenge ourselves to think outside of that box. We collaborated to make some really fun projects. Some of our high school students created music videos with themselves or with small groups virtually; some of our elementary students made up fun dances to different songs and things that they learned along the way.”

Eric Pierce is the athletic director for the West Bloomfield School District.

He shared his perspective on the impact shut-downs had on student-athletes.

“The shut-downs were tough on everybody,” Pierce said. “Sports, athletics, are an outlet for our students; it’s a place where people feel they have another chance to excel, they have another chance to socialize, they have another chance to be involved in something. And being part of a team is great for socio-emotional mental health. … Not being able to do that was just another thing that was taken away from them.”

Since athletic competitions resumed in the fall of 2020, Pierce said there have been limited stoppages.

After resuming, there was a period of time when masks were required for both indoor and outdoor sports.

Athletic programs are currently in the midst of the winter sports season. Active participants in a competition don’t have to wear masks, but those who are on the bench, the sidelines or doing “anything in common areas” are required to do so.

The 2020 high school wrestling season was completed in early March of that year, approximately a week before winter sports were postponed and eventually canceled. However, the impact of COVID-19 was still felt in 2021, as the season was delayed.

According to Madison Heights Bishop Foley wrestling coach Berney Gonzales, the season typically starts in November and runs through March. But last year’s season kicked off in February and didn’t end until May.

“You can’t get much more contact than wrestling,” Gonzales said at a recent Foley practice. “You’re breathing on each other, you’re sweating on each other, the whole nine yards.”

There was an aspect of last season that Gonzales said was a “heartbreaker,” as one of Foley’s wrestlers tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the postseason.

Being allowed to compete and have the team together this season is something Gonzales described as “huge.”

“These kids, they need this,” he said. “To see (the) smile on their face when they walked back in this room. Our sport is so family oriented. … To get back and get up off the couch, huge for them and their parents, because you’re locked up in your house and you become stir crazy, even little kids, with education being virtual.”

Despite getting the chance to wrestle last season, for Foley senior Joey Hildreth, things just weren’t quite the same.

“It was really wacky, because at practice every day, we had to wear masks,” he said. “It just didn’t feel like a regular season. But I’m grateful to have this season back, and that we’re back and able to have a pretty normal season.”

Hildreth said masks aren’t required at practice this year.

Having a chance to compete in his senior season is something Hildreth said “means the world.”

“This is my last high school season,” he said. “This might be the last time I ever wrestle on a mat, which is crazy to think about anyways, but if that got taken away from me, I don’t even know — it would be awful.”

 Zang provided details of the stages that the music program has gone through in Birmingham Public Schools.

“We started completely virtual, of course, and teachers came together to collaborate, to build these lessons, to spark creativity in a different way than the traditional norm. Then slowly, we’re getting back to performances in person,” she said. “And this past week, we’ve had many winter concerts, actually. We’ve been able to even have real performances again in person and feel some sense of normalcy.”

Zang talked about how the program has adapted since students were allowed to come together again.

“When we returned to in-person learning, we were fortunate enough to purchase proper PPE, including specialty singer masks, specialty instrumentalist masks that allow you to be covered and still fit in the mouthpiece or something, and still have a flap that comes over. So, you can still perform and have your nose covered,” she said. “And we also have bell covers that fit over the instruments, so that it significantly minimizes the aerosol impact. So if you have a room full of tubas, per se, you have two layers of protection for each student playing.”

When the West Bloomfield School District music and theater programs returned to in-person performances in the fall, Pace said, the arrangement in the auditorium was changed to provide “proper spacing and mask-wearing.”

Having a chance to play in front of an audience and be around peers can make for a nice escape from events going on in the world for student performers.

“They’re being inundated on media, on social media, in their homes and here at school with things that most adults aren’t equipped to handle all that well with what we’ve had going on related to school threats and violence, in addition to a pandemic, so it is a very bright spot for those students to be able to shine and perform — or to be an audience member — and connect with their peers and with their community in a positive way,” Pace said.

According to an email from Bloomfield Hills High School, there were a “number” of outdoor performances in the spring of 2020, including a play, a marching band and band performance, and orchestra and choir concerts.

The first indoor performances resumed in the fall of 2021.

Other events are scheduled in January and February, with “all COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including masking,” required for in-person events.

“Performing in front of an audience is a main focus of all our performing arts classes at BHHS,” Bloomfield Hills High School Director of Bands Alan Posner stated in an email. “The return to in-person performances at the start of the 2021-22 school year has really invigorated students, staff, parents and the community as a whole.”

For Pierce, sports are much more than mere competitions that revolve around wins, losses, records and stats.

“Anytime we have sports and athletics, it’s a huge boon to (the) culture of our school,” he said. “The culture revolves around our extracurricular activities, as well as what we do inside the school day. So, to have fans there, to have students have that sense of normalcy, to have our athletes playing, it’s something that makes for our school atmosphere, makes our culture the way it is. The students are excited to have sports back and (be) participating.”

The pandemic has provided perhaps the best example ever for the value of social interaction.

“Especially for our students’ social-emotional well-being, I think that music is an outlet to express joy, express emotions and to have a social aspect in the school,” Zang said. “A lot (of) them depend upon this subject, not only because it’s something they enjoy, but it’s their safe space at school. It’s their place that they have the same class and the same teacher, surrounded by the same kids year after year. So, it really builds a place where they feel comfortable.”

Pace discussed some learning lessons that can be taken from what has transpired since the onset of the pandemic.

“Mainly, the lesson learned is how important these programs are to our students and our community,” he said. “Secondly, is how we can adapt. A lot (of) times, we do things just because we’ve always done them, and it provided us new opportunities to get people involved in different ways and to share performances in different ways. Some of those things we’re sticking with now, with the way that we can broadcast events, if necessary.”

Pierce shared what he considers the “biggest lesson” learned.

“No matter what you’re a part of in high school, it’s so important to be involved, and it’s so much a part of the culture to be involved,” he said. “It so positively affects the students when they’re involved, whether it’s sports, fine arts, clubs, or anything like that. And to have that taken away, it just wasn’t the same high school experience. … And now to have it back, I think people are appreciating it even more than they did before.”