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The Lost Year: Setbacks & Successes for Extracurriculars

Published: Feb. 16, 2021 at 6:27 PM EST
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - Opening doors -- they can be kind of scary when you don’t know what’s on the other side.

It’s sort of like the COVID-19 pandemic. The one that unexpectedly shut down schools, cancelled sports, and now continues to fiddle with extracurriculars,leaving some students picking up the pieces they lost in a year unlike any other.

“I started cello in the fifth grade back at LaSalle,” said Riley High School junior cellist Matthew Williams. “Practicing in my room, I’m alone sort of like an auditorium. You don’t have anybody there, it’s just kind of you.”

Isolation, loneliness, and silence -- words that describe what most orchestra players, like Williams, feel playing in an empty room. The root cause: a pandemic that is not only fiddling with their music, but as Riley H.S. Orchestra Director Dale Kokot explains, forcing students to constantly change.

“As I sit here, I do feel sometimes a little sad at the end of the day that we don’t have that audience,” Kokot says.

An audience Kokot says has been cheering students on since the very beginning.

“Our orchestra, we always have, at state competitions, students who are 40-50 years have gone on and come back with countless medals and the kids have a lot of pride here,” Kokot says.

For Williams, his music has not suffered the only setback.

“All of the extracurriculars I’m involved in, all of the extra stuff I do to help out and doing extra events, it’s really been difficult missing out on not being able to do some of that stuff,” Williams says.

As the pandemic continues, the fear of playing in front of an empty crowd is the new normal. But despite the circumstances, students aren’t falling for any low expectations, they’re ending on a high note.

“Just the other day, I asked some of the students, I said is it possible that with this pandemic and lack of activity that some of the people are picking up their instruments and practicing more? And actually, some of them said yeah,” Kokot says.

After struggling at first, students of all ages within the South Bend Community School Corporation decided the best way to showcase their talents was to come together virtually by recording their individual performances at home.

Williams, who helped string all individual recorded pieces of ‘The Nutcracker’ together, says he was amazed by just how smooth the orchestra still sounded despite now being together in person.

“After stitching those videos together and listening to it, I’m like, wow, this still really sounds great even though we are not in person. It still sounds amazing,” Williams says.

While most students, like Williams, rely on their music to do the talking, to be successful in court, talking is one the many things you need to do to be successful. Just ask students in the mock trial program at John Adams High School, like junior Connor McKenna, who have discovered many trials during the time of COVID.

“For a lot of kids, it feels like everything about their world and what they had that was normal is kind of collapsing in front of them. It’s different online. A big part of mock trial is being in court, and being in the room, and getting to perform and put on a show. Feeling like that was taking away was a tough bump to get over to and to stay motivated to still do the mock trials,” McKenna says.

Along with McKenna, John Adams H.S. English teacher Amy Elliott says she too has had her moments while watching students let down by the not-so-good news to start their season.

“I know it was disappointing to a lot of the students not to be able to compete in person. Every year, some of our best times have been going to state,” Elliott says.

Since the 1990s, John Adams H.S. has won 19 state titles, the most recent in 2020, and has won two national titles. But even with all the accolades, adjusting to the pandemic continues to be their toughest case yet.

“If you are actually competing, you’re used to a courtroom, but if you are on Zoom you don’t look to the jury box, you don’t know where the counsel table is, right? Where the judges are except for little boxes on the screens,” Elliott says.

But with those screens, McKenna says students found something else: a way back into the courtroom, not in person, but with their mind and their mentality.

“It’s definitely a change in what everybody was expecting but I think that is another thing about everybody that’s in this mock trial program here at Adams is that everybody is kind of rallied together decided that it’s not normal but we’re still going to make it work,” McKenna says.

For Elliott, it’s been the dedicated coaching that she believes is giving students the idea of repeating as state champions a fighting chance.

“They have really stepped up and persevered. One of the best things is been that the coaches have really stepped up,” Elliott says.

Not only have coaches stepped up, McKenna says he and his fellow mock trial team have too.

“I think that the biggest thing honestly has just been everybody being understanding that it’s not the same and kids are going to be a little bit less motivated in still kind of pushing us through to the point where we can still compete at a high level,” McKenna says.

Speaking of competing at a high level, the Clay High School theater program is always ready to put up great numbers on stage --that is until the COVID-19 came crashing down on their party.

“Broadway...shut down. Civic theaters, everything like that, shut down. So that shut us down and we had to rethink,” said Clay H.S. Visual & Performing Arts Magnet Coordinator Meghan Beard.

Because of the ongoing changes of restrictions during the pandemic, Beard says it made things difficult for her students. In a normal year, Beard says the theater program would have completed nearly four full shows.

Instead, students are still working to put together their first and as senior theater student Evan Covey explains, it has not been easy.

“It was only fairly recently they got this one act started like a few months ago and it’s going slow,” Covey says.

Before the coronavirus, Covey says he gave his all to improving from being a back up to now competing for big roles.

“This was my entire life before quarantine shut everything down and I want to be able to do it again,” Covey says.

Even though wearing a mask and physical distancing will continue to limit what students can do on stage, at the very least, Covey says he is satisfied to still be around his piers.

“Being able to be here in person, we’re able to get together, we’re able to figure out a way to have this work,” Covey says.

And even if it does not work for some in what many are calling a lost year, Beard says teachers just like her are doing whatever they can to turn it into a lucrative one.

“This is traumatic, this is really hard and it’s very different. It’s just been a struggle, but it’ll just make getting everybody, maybe one day maskless, back in the classroom, make that moment even more sweeter,” Beard says.

While South Bend area schools are expected to roll out a plan and bring back more students in-person this month, restrictions for most extracurriculars are expected to stay the same and in line with federal, state, and local guidelines.

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