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Following closure, Syracuse High performing arts students campaign for shows to go on

By Emily Anderson standard-Examiner - | Dec 9, 2020
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The Syracuse High School Madrigals are pictured in an undated photo outside of Syracuse High School. Members of the Madrigals are among those campaigning for the Davis School District to allow performances to go on, like athletics games, despite the school being closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

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Senior Camden Gonzalez is tested for COVID-19 as part of the "Test to Stay" program at Syracuse High School on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. 

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This undated photo shows Syracuse High School.

SYRACUSE — Tuesday night was supposed to represent some lasts for Syracuse High School senior Nolan Smith — his last holiday concert playing trumpet with the school band, his last time performing under director Rod Wayman, who is retiring next semester.

Then, his school fell victim to another COVID-19 outbreak, which meant another closure. The winter band concert was canceled. So was a choir concert scheduled for Thursday night, and theater events set to be held Friday and Saturday.

“Band has been a huge part of my life since I first started learning instruments and stuff, and I love to play and perform,” Smith said. “It’s very disappointing.”

Now, he and other band, choir and theater students have launched a campaign for their district, as well as the state, to adjust rules so that their performances can go on.

The Davis School District announced the outbreak at Syracuse on Friday. At that point, there were 27 cases. In an effort to keep the school open — and allow scheduled concerts to go on — the district launched a pilot program, “Test to Stay.”

If Syracuse was able to get 80% of its students to take a COVID-19 test offered at the school, with their parents’ consent, in-person classes could remain in session. Syracuse High is the largest school in the district with 2,197 students, meaning 1,758 would have to participate. Only 68% of students submitted to testing.

Of those tested, 19 were positive for the coronavirus, bringing the school to a total of 46 cases. The school is anticipated to remain closed until Dec. 18.

The Utah High School Activities Association allows all activities to continue during a school closure as long as the number of cases in a group is less than three — the group threshold set in the state health department’s COVID-19 School Manual. Each group must also be tested every two weeks, as outlined in Gov. Gary Herbert’s November executive order.

UHSAA-sanctioned activities include most sports plus speech and debate. But band and choir are not among them. 

Anna Bott, a senior who is a second soprano in the Syracuse High School Madrigals, contends musical groups should be permitted to perform if all members are willing to comply with the rules laid out for athletes.

“We have worked for months on these songs and on our programs to make sure that people can come and hear, and listen to the message of Christmas,” Bott said. “We want to make sure that all schools within our district and across the state are still given the opportunity to hold concerts.”

Since finding out they would not return to school Tuesday, Smith estimated between 300 and 400 students had come together to advocate for the change. The group includes students from band, choir, theater and some athletes who are sympathetic to the cause, Bott said.

The coalition of students launched a petition Tuesday. It had collected nearly 300 signatures by Tuesday night.

Students — and their parents — have called and emailed district, county and state officials as part of the effort. Some have responded, some haven’t, according to Bott.

The director of the Davis County Health Department, Brian Hatch, spoke with a parent on the phone. He told the Standard-Examiner if a change were to be made, that decision would come from the school district.

He added that if performing arts students were to take a COVID-19 test every two weeks, like athletes, he’s not sure the health department would have the resources to support that. Hatch said the tests used for UHSAA athletes have been set aside by the state specifically for that purpose.

“I don’t have resources that are unlimited. What I do have are allocated to several other different avenues,” like the county jail and testing students who have been quarantined, he said.

Assistant Superintendent John Zurbuchen, who has overseen much of the district’s handling of the pandemic, was also among those who responded to the petition effort. Referencing performance cancellations when other schools have closed, as well as when Syracuse closed for the first time in November, he said making an exception for the high school may create issues between schools in the district.

“To simply say that SHS now can hold these activities would naturally create animosity from other schools/communities who did not get that opportunity,” Zurbuchen said in an email to a student that was shared with the Standard-Examiner. “That being said, know that we are actively looking at options that would honor the rules but still offer some options. We hope to have some resolution this week.”

Both Smith and Bott said they would be willing to perform in a concert that was streamed and didn’t have an audience, if such an option is on the table, although that wouldn’t be ideal.

District spokesperson Chris Williams said he isn’t sure what options Zurbuchen was referring to but that the district is working with Syracuse High to reschedule all of the performances. 

“These students have worked really hard and so have their teachers,” Williams said. “We want to do everything we can to showcase their talents.”

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