Band Director Scrambles to Help Students Cope With COVID-19 Hardship

Louise Smith, 42

Title: Band Director, Gautier Middle School

Location: Gautier, Mississippi

The Pascagoula-Gautier School District in Mississippi shut down in-person classes in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and make a transition to virtual schooling for an unknown period of time.

As told to Lisa Esposito as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did COVID-19 turn schools upside down for your students?

It was around the beginning of the pandemic. The kids in band were pumped about their spring concert and evaluation coming up in a couple weeks. It’s a big deal where they prepare and practice for months to give the best possible performance.

I stood at the podium and said, ‘Y’all, I keep hearing that school may be closed for a week or two. I hope this doesn’t happen — we’ve got work to do. Make sure if we have time off that you still learn your music.’ Of course, those weeks of shutdown turned into months.

Kids lost school suddenly. They didn’t have the option to say bye to their teachers. Early on, I arranged a Google meet with all the kids in the band program. “This staying home stuff is not fun,” they told me, and I heard somebody say, “This sucks, Mrs. Smith.”

[READ: Ensuring Kids With Behavioral Issues Aren’t Left Behind In the Pandemic.]

They kept asking, “Are we still going to be able to go to the spring evaluation?” I had to tell them, “It’s not looking like it.” They were all so disappointed when the concert was canceled.

Gautier is right on the Mississippi Coast. We were a direct hit for Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, kids were going home to FEMA trailers and basically homelessness. Now, 15 years later, we’re again trying to give students stability at school while they’re going through hardship. Only this time, it’s happening in what I call the ‘COVID classroom’ outside the school building.

[Read: COVID-19: ‘Seared Into My Brain.’]

When school shut down, we were all trying to figure out what to do when we’re not in the building to take care of these kids. One of my first concerns was that some kids wouldn’t be fed. But our district came together and figured out a way for parents to pick up meals. For kids who didn’t have any way to pick up breakfasts and lunches, our bus drivers actually dropped off meals where they lived.

During virtual school, my biggest daily worries were: Are my kids getting what they need? Am I doing enough? How am I going to do teach band remotely? It was an overwhelming feeling of: I don’t know enough technology right at this moment to do everything that I want to do with my kids. So I got involved in professional development and learned to use the technology and created a dynamic classroom online.

We also started a Google meet for our band program. We tried to make that 30 or 40 minutes a fun time where we played games, and did scavenger hunts around the house — just something to lighten the load on kids.

School buildings reopened to children in August 2020.

With band, it was the best feeling to have the kids back and playing together. We wear masks when we practice, even kids who play instruments like clarinet or flute. While there has been a little bit of grumbling about masks, they have adopted it.

When the Christmas concert rolled around this year, there were about 130 students participating. They were really excited to be playing in front of an audience again — to do something normal. They were smiling a lot — they were joyful. You could also tell they were really nervous just because they hadn’t played onstage in a while. There was a lot of fidgeting and pent-up energy they wanted to release.

To keep everyone safe, we did two concerts within one big concert. Between the intermediate and eighth-grade programs, we had 30 minutes to sanitize everything and then let kids and parents in the audience back in.

Two tunes that kids absolutely love to play stand out: a mashup called “Secret Agent Sugarplum” and “African Bell Carol,” the final tune.

When the concert was finished, the kids stood up for the round of applause. Even for a smaller audience, there was a lot of clapping. When I took my bow, I was looking out at the audience — the parents were just blown away. It was a great moment.

Kids are the most resilient humans on the face of the Earth. I’m so proud of my kids and what they’ve managed to achieve this year.

More from U.S. News

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