When schools closed two years ago, educators had to figure out the difficult task of how to teach remotely. For music teachers, the challenge was particularly tough. Participation is not mandatory, so many students drifted away from the program last year. But students are back and then some, according to music teachers.
Some of that involvement might just be pent up demand, but there is another fact at play – implementation of the School Committee’s policy change in 2019 eliminating fees for school activities like field trips and musical instruments. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the actual effects of the policy change are only now being felt.
Before, students who wanted to play an instrument in school would have to provide their own, usually through a rent-to-buy program run by a music store like Robert’s Music in West Warwick. The idea was for students to be able to learn to play an instrument and then to have that instrument for the rest of their lives, said music teacher Leslie Lee in a recent interview.
But in 2019 the state Department of Education clarified a policy stating that all school-sponsored activities must be provided for by the district, without participation fees attached. As it happened, that clarification came as a direct result of the EG School Committee, which had been wrestling with the question on and off since then-Committeeman Matt Plain first raised the issue in 2014. They finally sent a formal question to then RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner in 2018. His response came in 2019.
The EG School Committee finalized its new policy as well as a new policy guiding donations for things like field trips and instruments in spring 2020 but put it on hold for a year since the COVID rules nixed field trips and the music program had to be curtailed.
“We were very worried last year … we didn’t know how this program would bounce back,” said Lee. “We’re very thankful to our administration for supporting this program. Other districts, I’m finding, are still struggling to bounce back. We not only bounced back, we came back stronger.”
Used instruments cost around in the $200 to $400 range. Rental fees run upwards of $20 a month. At Hanaford Elementary (grades 3-5) the 2021-22 budget included $20,000 for field trips (including transportation) and the purchase of musical instruments. Principal Beth Cauley said they have spent $13,000 on used instruments, both for string and band.
“The main concern of the School Committee was that families who can’t afford an instrument, they’re more afraid to ask for help,” she said. This year, instruments are available to borrow. All a family needs to do is check the box that they want an instrument and their music teacher sends the student home with an instrument.
“It really is nice, especially for those who don’t have the finances for it,” Lee said.
They were able to purchase 50 instruments this inaugural year.
“We were so excited to get good quality used instruments that students should be able to use for years to come,” said Hanaford Principal Beth Cauley at the Feb. 15 School Committee meeting. “I want to commend the hard work for the music department,” said Eldredge’s Dan Seger at that same meeting. “Certainly if you offer it, they will come. We have a truly robust music band and strings program now.”
Regarding field trips, the goal is for each grade to have one field trip this year. The fourth grade already took a trip to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough for a STEM workshop and stadium tour. In the past, the PTG would often contribute to the cost of the activity itself, but parents would be asked to pay for the transportation. Now, parents are told what the trip will cost but also that there is no cost to them. The real cost to field trips is transportation, as it turns out. For the Gillette tripp, the tickets cost $350 for four classrooms. The cost for the two regular buses and one minibus was $2,416.50.
Parents and others may donate toward trips and instruments to help offset the cost.