After pushback, Aspen School District offering students full complement of art, music classes
To Erica Nottingham, a choir teacher in the Aspen School District, it made sense why some of the arts were left off the original plan for this school year. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to dictate lives, schools were trying to find ways to educate students, and that maybe meant leaving something behind.
“It’s understandable why those things would maybe be first to go, because they are the most difficult to administer,” Nottingham said. “They are the most difficult to actually do; you can’t translate a choral experience to the computer screen. So we had to be very vocal in our advocacy for these programs, especially with the focus on social and emotional learning.”
At an Aug. 17 Aspen Board of Education meeting, plans for the school year were announced that left elementary school classes such as art, music, theater and physical education on the outside looking in. This came despite a plan to return students up through fourth grade to the physical classroom on a limited basis.
But, after pushback from parents and faculty alike, the ASD did an about-face and through a teacher-led group found a way to make the “specials” fit the fall schedule.
“I am the biggest fan of P.E. and the arts. We didn’t know in the early stages how we could safely staff and provide that,” said Aspen Elementary School Principal Chris Basten. “For instance, our gym teacher, on a normal day, probably sees well over 100 kids. And the same can be said for our music teacher and the same can be said for our art teachers, as well as can be said for our world language teachers.”
The answer came via a form of block scheduling paired with the school’s cohort system and online learning. Beginning Sept. 8, the elementary school students will return to a physical classroom twice a week as part of either the Monday-Tuesday group or the Thursday-Friday group. Wednesday is a day for teacher planning and to clean the school between cohorts.
Those groups, which are no more than 10 students each, will spend two weeks attending the same specials class, such as physical education, before moving onto a different specials class after that time. Classes like art and music will be online-only via live group lessons Wednesdays.
This should limit the amount of students those teachers deal with on a weekly basis to about 60.
“It’s still a lot, but it’s definitely better than 500,” said Marnie White, a music teacher at Aspen Elementary School who also serves as the secretary for the Aspen Education Association. “That is to reduce exposure for teachers. We normally see all 500 students every three days, and obviously that exposure rate is not something that is acceptable in this environment.”
The high school and middle school students have started the school year online with no date set on a possible return to the physical classroom. Unlike the elementary school, which had its art classes originally nixed, that was never in the plan for the older students. While the classes will look different, the full offering of arts and music classes are on the schedule, outside of beginner instrumentals with the fifth-graders.
“Right now I’m working on plans to try and see as the year progresses, if we continue to stay online, how we can reincorporate beginning band students virtually,” said Andy Farmer, the band director for both the middle and high schools. “It’s been an easy transition with those older kids because they already got experience playing their instruments and they already got experience in the spring with how we are structuring our online teaching.”
Whether its through live online classes or being in the physical classroom, all the teachers agreed having art and music as part of the curriculum is important for the overall education and well-being of the students.
“I don’t think their education would be complete without some course work in the arts,” Nottingham said. “You kind of become a family. You become like a sports team when you work together for a common performance goal. So we are really excited to have all the courses back on the schedule, and the kids are as well.”