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Music programs take another hit in York City schools

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Coronaviruses, including the newest one, are named for the spikes that cover their outer surface like a crown, or corona in Latin. Using those club-shaped spikes, the virus latches on to the outer wall of a human cell, invades it and replicates, creating viruses to hijack more cells. (NIAID-RML via AP)

York City School District officials on Monday informed its music department that the district would be eliminating its K-8 band, orchestra and chorus, along with the middle school marching band, in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The suspensions would be temporary, said district spoksesperson ShaiQuana Mitchell, and would be in addition to full-scale cuts made earlier to the music department in an effort to slash spending.

"Out of an abundance of caution for the safety and welfare of the students and staff, the music stipend positions have been temporarily placed on hold," she said in an email Thursday.

The decision came in response to recent COVID-19 state education and health guidance, she said.

More:State education secretary backs 'hybrid' reopening plan

More:School openings hinge on case counts, health official warns

A statewide school reopening task force report, with input from a number of school associations, recommends limiting classes that involve singing or woodwind instruments, for example.

The act of singing or blowing through an instrument could spread the virus, researchers have said. 

Still, the cuts raised the ire of the program's supporters, with many residents and staff members speaking at Wednesday's school board meeting on how students would be affected.

Cutting music was a "terribly short-sighted decision," said resident Leslie Coleman. "Music supports both academic learning and social-emotional well being — something that city students desperately need."

Seven music teachers were previously laid off as part of the district's 2020-21 budget cuts, accounting for $557,000 out of the district's more than $6.2 million reduction in expenses.

More:'Wouldn’t wish on anybody': York City school board makes deep cuts

Researcher Peter Gouzouasis spoke to Psychology Today about a 2019 study he and University of British Columbia colleagues did on Canadian public school students in grades 7-12.

He noted that students who had taken music in school had performed better on exams such as math, science and English, and pointed to the irony of cutting music in favor of focusing on other core subjects.

His study appears in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

On Wednesday night, York City resident Nancy Schindo criticized the district for filling several administrative positions when programs involving music were repeatedly on the chopping block.

"Do we really need to continue to create and keep management positions that don’t offer direct instruction to our kids when we cut the arts and encores?" she said.

Daniel Evans, who led the marching band for the past two years, said he had spent many hours emailing, calling and reaching out during quarantine to recruit members and was hoping to have 20 or more students this year.

The middle school programs, he said, are important because they feed into the high school programs.

York High School Marching Band performs during halftime as York High takes on Cedar Cliff during football action at Smalls Field in York City, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. York High would win the game 48-28. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesperson Lauri Lebo agreed, noting that the community really cares about the music programs — which have delivered a lot of talent.

"York City School District's music program has always been considered the jewel of music programs in the area," she said.

"This will devastate not only middle school students but the high school programs that depend on those students in the years to come," Evans said, asking why sports were able to move forward.

Sports programs have also faced a lot of controversy among districts recently, as they have been allowed to continue despite the risk of COVID-19 spread.

York City Education Association President Jeff Werner noted the PIAA has put forth plans to operate safely, so there's no reason music programs shouldn't be able to do the same.

Werner said he would love to see the program continue to grow against all the adversity created by the pandemic. 

More:PIAA opts to stay course for now, won’t change start dates for fall high school sports

Superintendent Andrea Berry released a statement following the earlier music cuts, noting she understood music was an important part of educational context for students.

"As a former teacher, school leader, and parent, I understand your frustration. We want our children to be able to have consistent access to the best education possible," she said.

Mitchell, the district's spokesperson, on Thursday said officials would be working on alternate plans to incorporate affected programs, such as the music program, in other ways.