The sooner the public abides by social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, the sooner we can safely return to the lives we want and the education we need.

By Michael Pincus.

Attending a performing and visual arts high school used to be the most unique thing about me. It was always my “fun fact” during youth group ice breakers and my conversation-starter at family gatherings. Now, in my senior year at Alexander W. Dreyfoos Junior School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, I feel like any other public high school student in America.

With COVID-19 social distancing restrictions enforced to varying degrees nationwide, schools have had to adapt fast. This includes schools with magnet programs like science and engineering, which often depend on physical lab space, and performing arts schools, where the creative use of space is emphasized and encouraged. In a struggle to address the health concerns sparked by a global pandemic, schools like mine have lost the ability to deliver the distinctive quality education that originally brought students into their halls—and now, virtual classrooms.

There is a serious disconnect between teachers and students when learning is remote. Students are able to mute their microphones, turn off their cameras, and have other tabs open while in class. This is especially tempting to seniors like me, who are often juggling college or trade school application deadlines with advanced level curricula—and seem to never have enough time in a day. Teachers can try to enforce solutions to this detachment, like secure lockdown browsers, but let’s be real: kids always find a way.

Even when students are fully attentive and interested in learning, teachers still may have trouble reaching them through a computer screen. Shared classroom resources, including textbooks and lab equipment, become inaccessible to students of lower socioeconomic status. Some students may not even have a quiet place in their home to work, or a stable internet connection. The opportunity to learn and participate in school activities is thus reduced to privilege, which is out of a student’s control.

This lack of student engagement is even more challenging in arts classes. Arts courses depend on the interactivity, teamwork, and corporeal spirit that distance learning squashes. Simply put: arts education does not work on a virtual, remote learning platform. How is a dancer expected to learn group choreography without interacting in a group? What about a technical theater student learning woodshop without power tools and wood? Ever listened to an orchestra practice their repertoire over Zoom?

There are a plethora of arguments for the importance of arts education. Learning the arts fosters creative growth, heightened self-confidence and self-awareness, and strengthened communication skills in students. Arts education has already been threatened over the last few decades, during which our dependency on standardized testing and emphasis on rigorous academics have risen egregiously. Now, these benefits are in even deeper jeopardy. 

I am no proponent of returning to brick-and-mortar school until a vaccine becomes widely available to the public and COVID-19 cases significantly reduce. When given the option by my school district to return to physical classes, I opted to stay home and continued learning virtually. In this moment, it is important to prioritize the health and safety of elderly and immunocompromised people above all else. 

The solution to the  currently futile nature of a virtual arts education is the same as the solution to the pandemic as a whole. The sooner the public abides by social distancing guidelines and mask mandates are enforced (and obeyed), the sooner we can safely return to the lives we all want to be living.

The future of our youth relies on innovative educational support and access to creative outlets. Though I expect my senior year will remain unfulfilling, I am grateful for the exceptional opportunities my prior three years provided. I hope that future generations of students will have comparable—and preferably improved—points of entry for arts instruction. And I hope that they access them in-person, face-to-face.