When it was announced state superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey was going to be addressing all of the state’s music educators, many of us braced for potentially bad news.

Thankfully, the news wasn’t bad at all.

On Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey’s current health order expires. Dr. Mackey first pointed out several things that are expected to happen beyond the expiration of this particular order.

Older students in eighth grade and up will be able to return to school before younger students come mid-June, but they will be under strict orders for social distancing in smaller groups. For example, if only 10 people may gather, then a coach or band director could meet with nine or fewer students at that time, with everyone 6 feet apart or wearing protective facial coverings.

Dr. Mackey discussed what types of face masks should be worn once we all get back together.  He said even a simple bandanna would be acceptable. But how would that work when we sing or when we blow a trumpet?

He had already met with the football and volleyball coaches last week and discussed how the fall might look; now he addressed marching band directors.  

He discouraged any type of music rehearsal that would bring children in close proximity to one another, which would be impossible with bands and choirs under the current restrictions.  Marching band can meet, but he recommended small groups in manageable numbers.

What about competitions?

He said that the idea of having 30 or 40 marching bands in a stadium, sitting in close quarters for several hours at a contest, was not likely to even be a possibility this football season. So, a marching band can get together and rehearse and sit far apart at a football game, and even perform at least 6 feet apart on a football field — but no competitions. 

All of this remains in the realm of the possible; Dr. Mackey would not commit definitively to any of this because even he is unsure of what will happen next. As he said, how could we have known on Friday, March 13 we would embark upon the longest spring break in history?

Dr. Mackey addressed transportation concerns. For the 6-feet social distancing aspect to be taken literally, a school bus carrying 45 to 50 students would only be able to hold maybe 15. However, that is an unrealistic expectation. He recommended wearing face masks and having one to a seat or skipping rows.  

How will the CARES money be used, especially with regard to music education in Alabama? Dr. Mackey said that $216 million was sent to Alabama, but for legal purposes it has to be distributed to schools classified as Title I. The funds will be distributed based on the number of students in the system. For example, the largest of the school systems will receive $2.5 million, while the smallest will receive $100,000. 

Prior to the second week of March, Dr. Mackey said the leading topic of discussion at the state school board was mental health. That may have taken a temporary back seat to COVID-19, but he cautioned mental health is still going to be a top priority when the dust settles and we are back at school. 

The general guidance and handwashing protocol will be expected as students enter and exit the school building once they return. And Dr. Mackey still predicts we will be back on a regular school calendar come late August. For those who thought he was going to come to the music teachers’ meeting and blow us out, that didn’t happen.

In fact, his concluding statement was when we all get back to school this fall, he believes we should “surround children with the full school experience,” which Dr. Mackey said includes all of the fine arts. In a perfect world, they would be available to everyone from preschool to high school, he also said.  

“Every one of you can name a teacher who changed your life,” Dr. Mackey said, “maybe a music teacher.

“Thank you for being that teacher,” he concluded.

Our chorus performed for Dr. Mackey twice this school year. He is a music lover and fan, and I never doubted he would show support for us in this meeting. The nice surprise, however, was that he did not pull any punches nor make empty promises to us. He treated our profession and our students with respect, and I am even more confident he is the right leader we need at this time in Alabama history.  

Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools and a regular columnist for The Outlook’s sister paper, The Tallassee Tribune.