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FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Since the onset of the coronavirus in the U.S. this spring, educators have been faced with a challenge: How do we ensure that our students can safely engage in school this fall? How do we make school feel “normal” again?

As a music teacher, I am here to advocate in the strongest possible terms that our programs must remain a part of every possible curriculum, not just this fall, but into the future. That’s what we are doing in my district, where students returned to classes that look much different.

We have been able to do this because music teachers already understand how to navigate challenges – we do it every day. Running a music program requires dedication, perseverance and grit. We advocate for our programs to ensure that our students receive the highest quality music education, year in and year out. We find creative solutions to overcome every obstacle, even in the face of competing interests and budget restrictions.

Music teachers are strong people. We have to be.

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But this school year brings a new kind of uncertainty, not just for us, but for every teacher, administrator and district across the nation. We have already made the most informed choices with the information that’s available. Our district decided to start grades K-2 in person and grades 3-12 virtually. While the learning curve has been steep in terms of new technology, and there have been some expected kinks to work out, virtual learning has brought some opportunities that an immediate return to in-person learning may not have.

Related: It’s time to change the conversation around music education

I have become adept at some new technologies that have lessened paperwork and uncluttered my desk quite a bit. This has also made grading more streamlined and less time-intensive. 

However, conducting a choir or a drumming class over Zoom is certainly not ideal; hearing the ensemble together is impossible, due to differences in Internet speeds and connections. But the use of breakout rooms for rehearsals and the inherently autonomous learning process have actually been exciting to witness. Performing ensembles often focus on the group over the individual, and while I value and appreciate that group dynamic, individualized practice is something we often overlook. This has been a nice shift in focus for us. 

Research repeatedly indicates that schools and students with access to high quality music education perform better in a multitude of academic, social and emotional ways. We know that music sharpens attentiveness, equips students to be creative, supports self-esteem and strengthens perseverance – all attributes that feel more valuable than ever as our children struggle with the realities of Covid.

“Keeping students safe will be our top priority, and the way we go about the business of music education will look different. How we do music education may be changing. But why we do music educationwill not.”

Johnathan Vest, director of choral activities at Centennial High School in Franklin, Tennessee

Music classes are crucial places where students can express themselves artistically, while challenging themselves technically and academically. For many students, music class is the highlight of their day, and we don’t want that to change. We know many students will be returning with trauma associated with our “new normal.” For some, the tragedy of this pandemic has taken away family members and friends, or simply the comfort of routine.

Music teachers and the therapeutic practice of music itself are best positioned to help heal that trauma.

We don’t yet know when or if schools and classrooms can open in many parts of the country or what that will look like, but here in Tennessee we are holding choir and band practice outdoors for as long as weather permits. We also have learned that the uplifting act of coming together to play music can exist in the virtual space as well, as we’ve seen during livestreams from major performing arts institutions worldwide in the past several months.

Keeping students safe will be our top priority, and the way we go about the business of music education will look different. How we do music education may be changing. But why we do music education will not.

Related: What’s missing in music education? Cultural and social relevance

Right now, our students, parents, fellow educators and other invested parties who value music education need to make their voices heard to policymakers, to ensure that music classes maintain their place in our nationwide curriculum. Also, why not reach out to the music teachers at your school and ask how you can help, even in classrooms that are all virtual?

We will be needing everyone’s brainpower and support as we navigate through this time of innovation and transition. In return, we guarantee you’ll reap the wonderful rewards that music can bring to families and communities as a whole.

Music teachers need your advocacy and your help. And no matter what school looks like this fall, please know how thankful we are, today and every day, for the opportunity to fill the lives of our future generations with this art form that we love so much.

We return to in-person learning in a couple of weeks, and while I’m admittedly a bit nervous about safety for students and staff, I am so ready to see my students again, face-to-face – mask-to-mask. 

Johnathan Vest is the director of choral activities at Centennial High School in Franklin, Tennessee

This story on music education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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