Sixth-graders at Tandem Friends School were a month away from performing “Ronald Dahl’s Willy Wonka Jr.” when Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all K-12 schools in Virginia to shut down for two weeks.
But drama teacher Lydia Horan didn’t want that to be the end for her students. Two separate casts of sixth-graders already had memorized their lines and were learning the dance moves.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘how are we going to put on a play?’” Horan said. “I decided it would go in a different way, as a radio play.”
Thanks to video conferencing, the show goes on. Students are rehearsing the musical, reading lines and singing songs.
“It has been awkward to sing in front of everyone on a call and then one of you lags,” said Eli Carter, a sixth-grader who is playing Charlie. “Lydia is a great director and will make it work.”
All classes at Tandem, a private school in Albemarle County for fifth- to 12th-graders, moved online March 18. Horan now meets with her two sixth-grade drama classes twice a week for 45 minutes. Each is performing their version of the musical.
“It’s making the best of a horrible situation,” Horan said.
Tandem, which has about 215 students, spent several weeks preparing to switch to online learning as administrators saw the novel coronavirus shutting down schools in Washington State and in New York. The school decided to close its campus before Northam’s initial order.
“It was clearly a matter of time until the schools would close,” said Whitney Thompson, the head of school at Tandem.
On March 23, Northam closed all public and private schools in Virginia for the rest of the academic year. Area public schools are working on ways to continue learning remotely.
Thompson said school staff had been preparing families for that step since late February. On Feb. 29, the United States reported its first virus-related death.
“We knew that we could [go online],” Thompson said.
All Tandem students have Chromebooks, and the school is required to have a continuity of learning plan in order to earn accreditation.
Thompson said the next steps were to ascertain how many families and faculty members have internet access at home and to train teachers about the technology and strategies for remote learning.
All families did have internet access, she said, though the internet speeds varied.
“Our greatest challenge is internet bandwidth,” Thompson said.
Teachers develop their own curriculum, so they have flexibility about what they are teaching and how.
Administrators developed tools to check attendance and shortened the school day from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and condensed class time. School staff members are using video conferencing apps Zoom and Google Meet for meetings and classes.
“We wanted students to have a live experience as much as we could,” Thompson said. “With Google, they can call in on their phones or on their computers. They can hear voices and hear their friends.”
In between songs about the “Candy Man” and the importance to “Think Positive,” a cat meows in the background of one student’s room and students work out technology issues in the chat window.
Student Kavi Masters wished the technology was better and classmates’ videos didn’t lag.
“It’s nice, but I miss doing the dances,” Kavi said.
Student Ty Bias said he doesn’t mind not doing the dances as he already had forgotten most of the steps.
Since the cast is made up of sixth-graders, most should return to Tandem next year and could have a chance to perform on stage.
“My plan is that this play will go on in front of an audience at some point,” she said.
Moving a drama class online has required some trial and error. Students are told to mute themselves if they aren’t in the scene to limit outside noise, and to keep quiet.
“You have to get used to being absolutely silent,” Horan told her class Tuesday. “We are going to professionally record this.”
Horan also found that the ensemble numbers don’t translate well online.
“It doesn’t work because of the lag time,” Horan said.
Instead, she’s planning to give each person one line as a solo and piece it together that way.
Making the stage musical into a radio-like performance has given students a chance to focus on voice-acting, Horan said, finding a silver lining.
“Students are excited that we are still doing it,” Horan said, adding that the shift plays into the show’s theme. “We have to use our imagination.”