High school bands begin practice this week in Decatur with loosened limits on group sizes, but health precautions will still be required and the bands don't know yet if they'll travel to away football games or have competitions to enter.
Clay Sloan, beginning his first year as director of Austin High's marching band after previously serving as assistant, said the band will continue to rehearse under the assumption that members will have a full season of competitions and travel despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re preparing as we normally prepare because, if things happen and you’re not prepared, that’s worse,” Sloan said. “I think people that have to make those decisions are trying to gather all their facts. We will do what we have to do within those policies and procedures."
Bands will practice social distancing and members will wear masks unless they're actively rehearsing to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Decatur City Schools Deputy Superintendent Dwight Satterfield said the district has not made a decision on whether the marching bands will be permitted to travel this year.
Sloan said marching band competitions are usually hosted as a means of fundraising, and the upfront cost of holding them may increase the likelihood of early cancellations.
“If it’s something they have to put money into and then cancel at the last minute, that’s a real risk for them,” Sloan said.
After the Alabama Department of Public Health upgraded Morgan County’s risk level to red, for “very high risk,” on July 17, Decatur City Schools stipulated that marching band members and athletes meet in groups no larger than 20.
However, the county's level dropped to orange for "high risk" when the ADPH released new risk categories Friday. Decatur High band director Blake Ferguson said that led to approval from the Central Office to meet in larger groups.
Sloan said the Austin High band met in its entirety for the first time all summer July 16.
“Off and on since about the second week of June, we’ve been able to rehearse (in small groups),” Sloan said. “When we had everybody together again, it was special. Everybody was really excited to see each other in that context,” Sloan said.
Baylee Followay, a rising senior, majorette and french horn player at Austin High, said she enjoyed seeing everybody at the first full-band rehearsal.
“It was like we had a little bit of normalcy for a couple hours,” Followay said.
Followay said she’s hoping for a relatively normal senior year, despite the circumstances.
“I’m kind of worried about how everything is going to go,” she said. “I really hope I get as normal of a senior year as I possibly can with everything going on, and I’m looking forward for senior year, but I just wonder what all will happen.”
David Moore, a rising senior, drum line member and percussion captain at Austin High, said it’s been hard to adjust to the idea of not having a normal season during his senior year, but he’s trying to have a positive mindset.
“It’s very uncertain,” Moore said. “This year we don’t know what to expect. Are we having a season? Can we play football season?”
Ferguson said the Decatur High band, which is set to start rehearsing Monday, will split into three or four groups of 20 to 30 students each.
“We still are not going to do the full group in a close proximity,” Ferguson said, adding that the band sometimes rehearses in small groups even under normal circumstances.
“The nature of learning music, it’s easier to teach in those smaller groups, and the students receive more individual attention ... . So that’s really not completely out of the ordinary for us,” he said.
Before being permitted to rehearse, students are asked questions regarding possible COVID-19 exposure and are screened for elevated temperatures. They are required to wear masks except when they are playing their instruments.
“We will be wearing masks while we’re inside," Ferguson said. "The plan now is that if we’re playing the masks can come off, but when we’re not playing the mask is back on."
Jamar Echols, a rising senior and drum major at Decatur High, said wearing a mask during rehearsal will be difficult, but he’s nonetheless looking forward to starting rehearsal.
“Words could not describe how excited I am about rehearsal. I am really looking forward to being surrounded by music again. It’s oddly poetic how music creates a weighted blanket of tranquility around us high schoolers, especially at a time like this,” Echols said.
Caroline Grover, a rising senior and oboe player at Austin High, said she and her friends are looking forward to the season despite the less-than-ideal circumstances.
“Wearing the masks out in the heat is not the most comfortable thing, but I think everyone is in agreement that we’ll do it if it means we can have band this year,” Grover said. “Mr. Sloan and everyone has really been trying hard to have as much as we can, and being separated and the masks, they aren’t ideal, but we are willing to work with whatever we can in order to have some kind of season.”
Echols said he hopes activities can be rescheduled for spring if they are canceled this fall.
“Why not just push football season and competitions to the spring if need be, rather than cancel completely?” Echols said.
Typically, the Austin High band rehearses both indoors and outdoors, but Sloan said they are unable to accommodate the entire band indoors due to social distancing guidelines. Smaller groups can meet indoors, however, and Sloan said there are benefits to rehearsing inside.
“There’s no wind, there’s no heat, you can hear yourself, and it’s just fewer distractions if you’re trying to start out,” Sloan said.
Although traveling for competitions remains a concern, Ferguson said he’s not worried about performances for home football games at Decatur High. He said the stadium is large enough that social distancing will not be a problem for band members.