Loudoun schools theatre

Rock Ridge High School students perform “Mary Poppins” in 2018.

After the April 1 amendment to Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72 imposed heavy limits on public school performing arts events and performances in Virginia, parents, educators and students in Loudoun County and elsewhere in the commonwealth have called for the order to be revised.

The issue has resulted in a Change.org petition by the Virginia Music Educators Association titled, “Allow Virginia’s public school performing arts students to perform.”

The petition has accrued more than 7,200 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

“Students who have the ability to make music and to perform on the theatrical stage should get the chance to do so,” VMEA State Executive Allen Hall told the Times-Mirror. “It’s a part of their well-being.”

The Virginia Department of Education categorizes “fine arts performances to which parents or the public are invited” as social gatherings, which are currently limited to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors — including both spectators and performers.

As a result, many fine arts performances are forced to proceed without an audience or are hamstrung altogether, since many school bands, choirs and drama clubs contain more than 50 students and perform at indoor venues.

Meanwhile, events taking place in locations classified as “entertainment venues” — school sports, concerts, amusement parks and the like — are permitted to operate at a 30 percent capacity, with a 500-person cap on indoor activities and no specific cap on outdoor events.

“At indoor [sports] venues [athletes] are running around and parents are potentially getting excited, which is fantastic, but you can’t have a blocked drama performance with people sitting quietly in the audience or a straight orchestra performance where nobody’s even talking in a 1,000-person auditorium,” said Tabitha Duquette, president of the Rock Ridge High School performing arts booster club in Ashburn.“I think it would be easy to get into an arts-versus-sports thing and I do not want to do that,” Hall said. “I just would like to see the students … benefit from music the same way [as] students who are benefiting from sports.”

Loudoun County School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles District), did not pull his punches during the board’s Tuesday meeting, when he said the Democratic governor is “prioritizing sports and big company venues over education — completely backwards.”

“This drives me absolutely batty,” Morse said.

Loudoun County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler said on Tuesday that he and the rest of the administrative staff were “confused by the guidance put out from the state,” and that he has spoken with the office of VDOE State Superintendent James Lane in an attempt to lobby on students’ behalf.

Still, as it currently stands, the executive order constitutes a concrete mandate rather than mere guidance, meaning LCPS cannot simply ignore the attendance limits, lest staff wish to incur misdemeanor charges, fines and jail time, per Ziegler.

As the guidance comes from the state government, board member Leslee King (Broad Run District) encouraged the community to email Lane at superintendent@doe.virginia.gov, while Morse suggested taking the issue directly to Northam.

“For the first time in my nine years up here, I’m going to say the words, ‘Call the governor,’” Morse said. “Be polite, be prompt, but get the point across.”

School Board Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District) added that she had planned a Wednesday call with local members of the Virginia House of Delegates, including Del. David Reid (D-32nd), to ask for help with lobbying at the state level.

Until restrictions on performing arts events loosen, however, schools will be forced to either welcome minimal spectators to performances and concerts or shutter the events completely — a fate that might await Rock Ridge High School’s upcoming spring musical, since the entire company exceeds 50 people.

“Our students are fighting hard right now,” said Duquette, whose daughter is a Rock Ridge senior.

The department even selected the musical in question, “High School Musical 2,” because it would allow the directors to stage scenes so that characters would maintain proper social distance.

“They’ve got the floors blocked out and taped out, they’ve got special face masks that have a spot that’s clear so that people can see most of their faces and they can still be safe,” Duquette said.

“There’s been a lot of thought and effort put into making this production extremely safe,” she said.

Not only is the safe conduction of fine arts performances entirely feasible, Hall said — it’s necessary and required by the Virginia Standards of Learning for arts classes.

“For kids who perform and teachers who like to teach students how to play and perform, there’s no substitute,” Hall said.

“When you’re a student who derives that joy from public performance — theatre or music — and you don’t have it, it’s like a piece of you is missing,” he said.

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