Special to The Dallas Examiner
CEDAR HILL – Douglass Harrell has worked as a choir teacher for the past 12 years, but he will have a newfound appreciation for it after COVID-19 ends.
“You have to sit and take inventory of all the things you’ve taken for granted,” said Harrell, who started as Cedar Hill High School’s director of choral activities this semester.
While many other courses can adapt with the combination of social distancing and technology, it’s a challenge for singers who engage in an aerosol-based activity.
Understanding that, Harrell and Assistant Choir Director Chandler Renshaw – who is also new to the district this semester – have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines down to the letter.
Those regulations require any choir member to wear both a facemask AND a face shield while singing, and they must be at least 6-feet apart from classmates or teachers. Singing cannot last for more than 30 minutes during a class period.
“I haven’t even seen the faces of our scholars,” Harrell said. “We stay closer to 25 minutes than 30.”
And then there’s about half of the scholars who participate virtually. Creating the type of teamwork and chemistry required of a choir can be difficult when some scholars are in the classroom and others are virtual.
Undoubtedly, the vocal quality is not as good when scholars must sing under both a face mask and face shield, but Harrell and Renshaw understand that safety comes first. They know it’s better to have some semblance of choir, rather than not at all.
“We have to be a little creative in how we approach class,” Harrell said. “We have to plan and then adapt.”
When school closed last March, choir activities were even more limited than they are now. Meeting in person was not an option at that time.
Harrell, who grew up in West Texas, comes to CHISD from W.T. White High School in Dallas. He’s also taught in Lubbock and New Mexico.
One of the primary goals of choir is to prepare for special concerts and UIL competitions. While there have been some limited virtual competitions, there won’t be any much-anticipated holiday concerts or public performances this year.
Harrell and Renshaw have discussed the possibility of doing a “karaoke type” virtual event where scholars can choose pop songs. It would be a departure from the traditional choral music, but one that would reward scholars with something fun toward the end of what has been a challenging semester.
“We’re still going to try to prepare for UIL in the spring,” Harrell said. “We have some of the most talented kids I’ve ever taught. I hate that everything is under COVID restrictions, but we have to do everything we can to be safe.”
While Harrell graduated from Wayland Baptist University in Plainview and did graduate work at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Renshaw is a Texas Tech graduate who is approaching the one-year anniversary of her graduation from the Lubbock-based university.
“Chandler is amazing, and the kids love her,” Harrell said. “She’s a real go-getter and has a lot of energy. If somebody was made to do the job, it was definitely her.”
Renshaw grew up in the metroplex in a family of singers. She originally decided to study English but switched her major during her junior year at Tech. By that time, she was taking two choir classes per day.
Renshaw said if there’s a silver lining to all of the safety and social distancing, it’s that the scholars and teachers can overcome challenges.
“I don’t think anything will be hard ever again after this school year,” Renshaw said. “We talk about finding one moment of joy per day and holding on to that.”
The Class of 2021 Choir Seniors have approached this year with mixed feelings.
“Every senior is handling it differently,” Renshaw said. “Some are saying ‘this is the situation we have, and we’re going to make the best of it’. Some of them are very upset, because this is their last year of choir.”
Instead of focusing on the obvious limits that social distancing creates, Renshaw asks herself one question each day.
“Are the scholars learning?” Renshaw said. “Yes. Good.”