KEYSER, W.Va. — When he learned of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission's Monday decision to bar marching band performances at football games this fall, Frankfort High School band director Roger Walker said his initial reaction was one of disappointment for the sake of the students.
"Later on in the evening when I got home, I started thinking about it, and I thought 'We need to try to change this, for the sake of the kids,'" Walker told the Times-News during a phone interview on Thursday.
He wasn't alone. That same night, Walker said, parents of students in marching band across Mineral County, and likely across the state, contacted the WVSSAC and Gov. Jim Justice's office to express their dissatisfaction with the decision made.
The stream of calls proved successful. On Tuesday, Justice announced that the decision had been made without his input, and so he directed the Department of Education and WVSSAC to work with health officials to devise a policy that would permit performances.
That the decision had been made in the first place was a “big misunderstanding,” Justice said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference, adding that “the information just did not flow to me … and as soon as I got the information I said ‘For crying out loud, what are we doing?’”
Marching band performers, Justice said, are “just as devoted to their activities as our athletes,” and just as desiring of time on the field this fall.
Under the revised guidelines, pre-game and halftime shows are permitted with certain safety regulations. In addition to other requirements and recommendations, only percussionists will be allowed to play their instruments during games. Band members and their families will be seated separately from the rest of the crowd. When not playing, band members will wear a protective facial covering.
The reversal, Walker said, will provide some much-needed normalcy for students in the middle of a highly abnormal time.
"When the decision was reversed by Gov. Justice, we were so very thankful because this school year is already going to be different in so many aspects, so many ways," Walker said. "Just being able to go to the games and perform at a minimal level is better than not performing at all. Gov. Justice has always been a big proponent of the arts, and this was no exception. ... He really came through for the kids and the arts."
Normally, Walker said, the band plays in the stands continuously throughout the game, so it will be a bit different to just have percussion playing. Brass and woodwind players will be properly distanced from one another as well, he said.
The preparation for the season has been relatively "minimal," Walker said. He abandoned the idea of the full field show that he'd originally had in mind when band camps were canceled earlier this year, he said, opting to just play in the stands.
Throughout June and July, the 81-member band was only allowed to practice in pods of 10. When extracurriculars were halted for two weeks due to students in Mineral County schools testing positive for COVID-19 last month, Walker said the band, too, had to stop, although he said Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft "made a really, really good call" when he made that decision.
The band met for practice Wednesday, Walker said, the first time all members had been together since March. Seeing them come together after they spent so long in relative isolation was "very refreshing and very rewarding," he said, in addition to productive.
"They did really well," Walker said, even with that long lapse in time. "Now that this marching band issue has been resolved, we started yesterday putting some easy drill on for a field show, and the kids were outstanding. They were terrific. We're blessed with great kids, great band families, great people. It makes it a pleasure to work with them."
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Keyser High School band director J. Suzanne Warrick was similarly pleased with Justice's decision.
"I am glad the band will now be allowed to play at home football games during the fall 2020 season," Warrick wrote, noting the uncertainty that permeated much of the summer and some of the adjustments they had to make.
"We have kept our communication going through virtual interactions and have provided online resources to our students," Warrick wrote. "It’s been difficult to maintain consistency to develop our musical program, but the students and staff have maintained positive attitudes. Our competitions have been canceled this year, as well, so I know the students are excited to participate on Friday nights. We are looking forward to showing our school spirit, supporting the football team, and enhancing the experience for the parents in the stands."
Follow staff writer Lindsay Renner-Wood on Twitter @LindsayRenWood.