In the same way that it has halted action on the athletic fields and running tracks, the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has imposed a collective silence within auditoriums and concert halls across the United States, where high school performing arts students would otherwise be displaying their musical, oratorical and theatrical talents.
For many NFHS member and affiliate organizations that govern high school performing arts activities, the nationwide institution of school closures and public gathering constraints brought the 2019-20 events schedule to a premature end. However, aided by an agreement between the NFHS and several music publishers to authorize the temporary use of copyrighted material for educational purposes, a small number of performing arts entities have made the courageous decision to host online student exhibitions.
“The publishers have been gracious with their permissions to allow students the ability to complete their year-end assessments while remaining copyright compliant,” said Dr. James Weaver, NFHS director of performing arts and sports. “The NFHS has worked for many years to help schools be copyright compliant. This move by the publishers should be applauded for the assistance they are providing schools in this unprecedented time.”
The afforded additional permissions opened the door for organizations such as the Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA) to hold its first-ever Virtual Solo Festival, which was recently completed at the district level and is currently progressing through state-level adjudication.
Recorded student performances are uploaded privately to You- Tube and then shared to an online audition platform owned by CS Music, which allows adjudicators to access each student’s work, provide feedback and an optional rating at the performer’s request, and send that material back to the student discreetly.
Ensemble performances fitting one of two unique criteria have also been accepted for virtual adjudication. Eligible pieces are those submitted by quarantined siblings, or by students who had the foresight to record their works at school prior to the statewide closure.
WSMA Executive Director Laurie Fellenz said there was plenty of uncertainty and a host of organizational rules that were bent in accommodating the online setting; however, seeing roughly 2,500 district submissions and a continuously growing number of state-level entries (currently over 1,200) validated the enterprise.
“Choosing to move forward with a virtual festival was definitely scary at first – and that’s probably a soft word compared to how we all felt – but we did the right thing for kids,” said Fellenz. “As an organization we knew we needed to serve our children, and so students were at the center of every decision we made. And we’ll never regret it; it has supported kids who have lost so many opportunities this spring.”
For the past three years, the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) – headed by executive director John Becker – has held an online Individual Events (IE) tournament known as OLIE (On-Line Individual Events) that was originally designed as a way to keep students sharp during spring break. With this past experience, Becker and his staff knew exactly what needed to be done when in-person competition was no longer an option.
“When the shutdown was imposed, we thought, ‘we know how to do this, and students want and deserve these opportunities, so let’s give them an outlet,’” he said.
This year, MIFA will bring three additional contests to the online realm, each sporting a unique moniker. The BEAST – Best Ever Alternative Spring Tournament – will comprise middle school IE competition and run May 1-3, while The YETIE – The Year End Tournament for Individual Events – will be the high school equivalent and follow immediately after from May 4 to 13. Finally, M-DOT – Michigan Debate Online Tournament – will be a Public Forum Debate contest held on May 16.
With many of the kinks already worked out from a technical standpoint, Becker said MIFA’s biggest challenges have been scaling up the online platforms to accommodate larger participation numbers and getting judges comfortable with a new medium.
“Debate judges in Michigan are relatively familiar with adjudicating online, but the IE people – not so much,” he said. “I think the biggest difference for many of them is that the platform we use – Tab-room – is global, so everyone can see why contestants were ranked the way they were, whereas on a paper critique each student only gets the small snippet you give them. So, for several of them, they’ve had to rethink what they are going to say in their comments.”
This spring, the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA) – one of the oldest high school forensics associations in the country – would have celebrated its 125th anniversary of hosting its State Speech Festival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Instead, the event will not be held for the first time since the World War II era and will be replaced with the inaugural WI Open Virtual Speech Festival.
The first virtual festival in the WHSFA’s storied history was held in late April with more than 300 entries from roughly 70 schools and was unaffiliated with the rest of the organization’s festival series.
Executive Director Adam Jacobi initially did not expect the exhibition to take off in popularity – especially in the state’s rural areas where bandwidth can be spotty – but was pleasantly surprised.
“The most vocal advocates for doing this were from the most remote parts of the state,” Jacobi said. “They cited how this prevents them from making the long trips to regional qualifying contests, and some of them have to travel four hours to Madison for the state contest. There is a lot of interest in what this might mean for accessibility in the future, even though this festival is more of a practice venture.”
Finding judges on short notice could have been a potential roadblock, but thanks to a statewide surge of support from eager volunteers Jacobi ended up with more than enough for the job.
“I was going to reach out to our full list of certified adjudicators around the state but we’ve had so many people just volunteer to adjudicate that if we had recruited people I think we’d only have one presentation for each one to watch,” said Jacobi. “We’ve had coaches from the schools saying, ‘let me know if I need to take on more.’ The response has been spectacular.”
The Iowa High School Speech Association’s (IHSSA) Virtual Make-up State Contest is for IE and is markedly different from other online exhibitions. In the IHSSA’s format, most of the onus is on the individual schools, which are required to hire their own panel of three certified judges to adjudicate their participants.
Secondly, performances cannot be recorded under any circumstances, and must be done through a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. Virtual performances must be conducted in front of judges by June 20, but a tentative plan to add an in-person element when conditions allow would extend the festival through the end of August.
Known for his affinity for new events avenues, IHSSA Executive Director Craig Ihnen believes using the internet as a vehicle for student performance has the potential to be explored further.
“For Individual Events, it might be beneficial to have a ‘virtual’ category for the kids who can’t get to the festival site but can participate from home,” he said, affirming the feedback the WHSFA received from its rural schools. “It would be different from what we’re used to, but I think we should think outside the box a little bit with this.”
A configuration similar to that of the IHSSA will be used in Texas, where University Interscholastic League (UIL) Director of Speech and Debate Jana Riggins is preparing for the first virtual event in the organization’s history.
Just like in Iowa, Texas schools will be responsible for coordinating their own showcases for the UIL Academics At-Home Experience, which includes components for Speech and Debate, Journalism, a timed writing event called Ready Writing and objectively scored programs such as Accounting, Social Studies and Spelling.
For Speech and Debate, offerings will include Prose, Poetry, Informative Speaking, Persuasive Speaking and Lincoln-Douglas Debate. A school that establishes itself as an exhibition host can use any videoconferencing platform of its choosing and may invite other schools from any of the UIL’s six conferences, which are classified by size from 1A to 6A. Making special accommodations like these for the sake of the At-Home Experience will be a very rare occurrence for the UIL – an organization known for its strict rules enforcement – and is expected to produce shockwaves for coaches and participants.
“We are asking them to adhere as much as possible to the UIL rules because that is the way students have learned and practiced and rehearsed all year long,” Riggins said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for the school willing to host and the contestants who suddenly have to adapt to a virtual contest room.”
“We’re approaching the experience with a great deal of flexibility by allowing them to go outside the realm of the traditional alignment that we normally assign, and that’s going to surprise them because it’s not the structure they’ve ever lived under.”
Given this will be the first time the UIL will stray from the speech and debate format it has used since 1910, Riggins is understandably nervous about how things will transpire. However, like each of the association representatives stepping forward with opportunities, she understands the tremendous value in taking the risk.
“It might not be the most perfect meet we have ever run with all the unknowns and new methods of creating the experience,” she said. “However, the passion for what we do in providing an educational experience for Texas students is what’s driving this. We wanted to give the seniors something special to end their high school competitive careers on a high note and we wanted to show all of our students that we are there for them during this difficult time.”
Arguably the most heartbreaking-turned-uplifting virtual tournament story comes from Wyoming. With high school debaters from around the state on hand and dressed for competition, official word came from the Wyoming Department of Health that the State Speech and Debate Tournament would be canceled approximately one hour before it was scheduled to begin.
Drawing on his own experience with online debate tournaments, University of Wyoming Director of Debate Matt Liu assembled a team of organizers, which included his own debate team at Wyoming, and collaborated promptly with the Wyoming High School Activities Association and the Wyoming High School Forensics Association. In the end, a virtual plan was devised and the students’ opportunity to compete was preserved.
Although skeptical at first, Cheyenne (Wyoming) East High School head debate coach Marcus Viney honored his team’s decision to enter the virtual tournament, which was contested April 22-25, and came out a believer in what the experience did for those who participated.
“Like everywhere, we have kids who really need speech and debate,” said Viney. “Sometimes it’s the best or only place that they get attention, validation, or any kind of success worth talking about. Kids are living through uncertain times and they’re anxious about what’s going to happen next. For many, this was a little spark of excitement and a return to purpose for a brief moment.”
As we continue to spend a substantial amount of time apprehensively monitoring the effects of the Coronavirus in a seemingly foreign world, a “little spark of excitement” or “return to purpose” can be hard to come by; but it is in these rare instances that we are driven forward, and reminded that eventually these extraordinary times will pass.
In hosting some of the only high school events happening across the country, the listed individuals and associations are providing a small dose of normalcy for students by salvaging irreplaceable participation opportunities. Their remarkable efforts represent an unparalleled dedication to student service and redefine what it means to be a leader in high school performing arts.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.