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Sonoma County school districts rethinking music education for fall

Mixed into the daily list of chores for Windsor brothers Cody Peters, 15, and Casey Peters, 11, is a 30-minute window for practicing their instruments.

The elder Peters boy plays baritone saxophone in the Maria Carrillo High School band. He has started playing solos and is growing more comfortable improvising, thanks to his foundation of going through the comprehensive music program in Rincon Valley Union School District.

Casey switched from clarinet to trumpet a year ago and plays along with YouTube videos, said his father, Chris Peters. His youngest son attends Whited Elementary in east Santa Rosa, intent on being another product of the renowned Rincon Valley music program.

His progress almost was stalled before the Rincon Valley school board committed to starting the school year with distance learning, abandoning initial plans to reopen that entailed sweeping cuts to the district’s coveted music program and shellshocked its teachers. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday removed any lingering doubt by ordering school campuses in counties such as Sonoma County on the state’s coronavirus watchlist to remain closed.

The Rincon Valley district last month gave its eight full-time music teachers the choice to be substitutes, earn a different teaching credential, take unpaid leave or retire early. One teacher would stay to curate weekly music lessons for 3,200 students in the district.

Superintendent Tracy Smith said the district will reverse course and rethink how music could be more widely offered under another chapter of students being taught at home.

But the recent decision to put music courses on the chopping block signaled how some school districts view arts education in response to myriad challenges confronting public education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For parents like Peters, cutting music behind closed doors or without greater public consideration for how it could be adapted was a gut punch for a community that has renewed multiple voter ballot measures to pay for the program.

“It’s disappointing,” Peters said. “I feel like it makes them better students, well-rounded human beings. If every other teacher is going to be doing online classes for everything, why not music?”

Smith said the initial decision, which the district has now committed to reviewing, came when reopening school classrooms seemed imminent and state guidance indicated chorus and band would not be safe for in-person classes.

Equity also played a role in that decision if the district adopted a hybrid model of part classroom and at-home instruction, Smith said. Not every household is like the Peters family, and requiring children to play an instrument at home could be difficult for many families who are crowded together or facing hardships caused by the ongoing virus-related public health stay-at-home order.

The Rincon Valley superintendent said music teachers have submitted a proposal to try and salvage the program this fall, and the district is reassessing how classes could be offered in different formats.

“As much as music supports academic learning, if we are looking at limited instructional minutes (in a school day), we had to look at academics (first),” Smith said. “But I’m excited about rethinking music. Music is what keeps many students engaged.”

Casey Jones, a music teacher at Analy High School in Sebastopol, has been part of a network of area performing arts teachers meeting regularly to swap best practices and share solutions to convince school district administrators not to give up on noncore subjects.

Before the pandemic, almost 80% of Sonoma County students were not receiving the type of comprehensive visual and performing arts coursework mandated by the state, according to the Department of Education. Losing a year of regular arts education, in the face of financial hardships, could worsen those figures.

Jones is concerned local districts might cut arts and music programs without considering solutions to retain them, or how they could affect students long-term, he said.

West Sonoma County Union High School District officials have so far been supportive, said Jones, who is encouraged by the shared dialogue this summer. He’s optimistic that new research from Colorado State University could provide more clarity on virus transmission through musical instruments, and help reassure wary school administrators.

“For many folks, music can be a way to express their identity,” Jones said. “Whether they’re physically playing their instruments, artistic expression is key. For the folks who want students to be mentally healthy, the arts are a key part of that.”

Rincon Valley band teacher Isaac Vandeveer said tools like SmartMusic and small-group video lessons via Zoom could be used to keep music instruction going, even if it’s not as satisfying as being together in an ensemble.

But Vandeveer also recognized that school district leaders are “doing the best they can with the information they have.” Even though he would like to see students continue matriculating through the program, schools are still in crisis mode trying to manage a lengthy pandemic.

“There is no easy answer,” Vandeveer said. “My school district, it’s not that we don’t hold the arts in high regard and value them, it’s that the priorities are more basic than that. Using the music teachers as roving subs — it’s all hands on deck. Let’s take care of the basics and keep the core curriculum as robust as possible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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