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The loss of in-person instruction in U.S. schools impacted students in every subject, including art. Some wonder if catching up in STEM will mean losing more art.

by Tina Manzer

In the fall of 2019, art students at the Honeoye Central School District in New York’s Finger Lakes Region spent a semester designing and creating totems. The studio art class of about 20 freshmen worked with a visiting artist, sculptor Kim Bellavia, who shared with them her methods and materials. A grant written by high school art teacher Tim Williams paid for her instruction, along with the cardboard, chicken wire, quick-hardening cement, acrylic paint and the polyurethane needed to seal them.

“Oh no, absolutely not, we could never have done this project during COVID,” Tim told me on one of his last days at school. “We were teaching kids how to work with supplies they had never used before, and there were a lot of steps involved with this project. The students had to be here together, and with Kim, to get the quality results we achieved.”

Last March, like other art teachers around the country, Tim packaged up individual bags of basic art supplies when he learned that his school would close due to COVID. He loaded them in his car and dropped them off to students at their homes. “There were certain supplies that they weren’t allowed to use unsupervised, so we had to modify some of the projects we had planned.”

Later, at about this time last year, he and his colleagues realized that the ’20-’21 school year would not be back to normal. When they placed their orders for supplies, it included more brushes, pastels, paint, etc., for students who would work independently at home.

This year, with school partially open, Tim taught some students live in the classroom. At the same time, 13 or 14 of them who were working from home tuned in via Zoom. “It was problematic because I couldn’t judge how they were doing just by looking at an image on my computer screen,” Tim explained. “And that was the hardest thing during COVID. As an art teacher, I had to step back, swallow hard, and admit that students working remotely were not going to produce the same quality of work that they would if they were all here in the classroom.”

It’s a realization that has come to absolutely everyone in the education field. How effective is distance learning and what is the learning loss? There’s a fear among teachers of the arts, music and drama included, that as school systems try to make up for lost learning, they’ll choose to cut subjects that they somehow think are not important, like art.

“Often, with these types of decisions, we do find the arts on the cutting block,” writes Heather Wolpert-Gawron on the blog of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The coordinator of 21st century learning and professional development for San Gabriel Unified School District in California says she’s already seen cuts to art instruction at schools in her state.

“But I would argue that this is a time when the arts are most critical,” she wrote. “Crisis breeds creativity – and these creative bursts aren’t always just about fun ways to pass the time. They can also lead to vital discoveries. Isaac Newton (pre-Sir) first mulled over the Law of Gravity when on his own, in self-isolation, during the bubonic plague. And did you know that Scotch tape was born of the Great Depression as a means to repair, rather than toss out, broken and torn goods?

“Creativity is a vital ingredient in innovation. And that just might be the key that saves us all.”

At Honeoye Central School this year, permission to be creative with school property helped give graduating seniors hope, relieved some stress, and let their personalities shine. Every year, each senior gets a designated parking spot in the school’s lot. This year, they were invited to decorate theirs with art.

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