CORONAVIRUS

Mount Vernon students take stage in new arts center almost 9 months after COVID canceled performances

Coronavirus pandemic sidelined grand opening of the district's performing art center in March

Mount Vernon High School sophomore Lydia Benesh (left), senior Isabelle Krapfl, senior Lillie Hawker and senior Emrys Ya
Mount Vernon High School sophomore Lydia Benesh (left), senior Isabelle Krapfl, senior Lillie Hawker and senior Emrys Yamanishi perform in “Proof” to a small audience in the district’s new performing arts center. (Mount Vernon Theatre Department photo)
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MOUNT VERNON — Mere days before Iowa schools were closed in March as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic, the Mount Vernon Community School District held its grand opening of a new performing arts center.

The musical “Tuck Everlasting” was scheduled for April, and students had worked hard all semester to perform it in a new space before the musical was canceled because of COVID-19.

“It was heartbreaking. To look at the seniors and tell them we couldn’t do their senior musical that we invested time and energy into after this thing (coronavirus) comes out of left field,” said Tom Stephens, theater director and English teacher at Mount Vernon.

Nine months later, students finally got to perform two small plays to crowds of no more than 50 in the performing arts center, which has the capacity for 850 people.

Small casts performed — while wearing masks — “Sylvia” on Nov. 13, and “Proof” on Nov. 14. They chose two productions of small casts to be able to maintain social distancing on stage.

The performing arts center addition to the high school was part of a $12.8 million general obligation bond passed in the spring 2018.

“To finally have a facility that matches the quality of the programs we’re trying to put on is helpful and rewarding,” Stephens said. “The best benefit is we’re able to teach students things they would see in the real world if they go into theater, whether it be community theater, in college or professional.”

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The performing arts center doubles the theater space and adds an orchestra pit, a theatrical rigging system, and a scene shop where students can build scene sets.

The measure, which needed a 60 percent supermajority to pass, garnered 80 percent of the vote. The bond did not raise the district’s current property tax rate at the time of $18.41 per $1,000 assessed valuation.

Students in theater, which is an extracurricular at Mount Vernon, began meeting over Zoom in May to begin discussing the possibility of a fall play.

“More than anything, it was a way to maintain relationships, to check in with students once a week, have some social time,” Stephens said. “It didn’t do a whole lot for us in terms of the production, but we stayed connected as a community.”

The Educational Theatre Association advised masks to be worn during rehearsals and required for audience members, but not required for performances. To be as safe as possible, students made the decision to perform in masks.

This presented a new challenge for them as they learned to act without having full use of facial expressions.

EXTRACURRICULARS BRIEFLY PUT ON HOLD

Mount Vernon schools have been in hybrid learning since the beginning of the school year. The goal is to go back to fully in-person learning on Jan. 19.

The district has been “fortunate” so far to maintain strong staffing levels, which other districts in Eastern Iowa have struggled with as teachers and other staff have been out sick or in quarantine, Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said.

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On Nov. 18, the district put a hold on athletic and extracurricular activities until Dec. 4, because of the rising number of coronavirus cases in the county.

As of Dec. 1, the district had 55 students and nine staff test positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year. The highest number of students in quarantine at one time was 250 students in mid-November, Batenhorst said.

As of Friday, five students and three staff were actively positive for COVID-19, and 35 students and staff were in quarantine.

SMALL WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

Thad Wilkins, 8th-12th grade vocal director for grades eight through 12, said he had been dreaming for a year and a half what that first concert in the new performing arts center would be like.

“I had a lot of plans that are all out the window,” he said.

Choir and band students have gotten to use the performing arts space this fall for class where there’s room for more than 6 feet of distance between them.

“That’s vital,” Wilkins said. “Having that space has totally changed how we’re teaching.”

Masks present a challenge in teaching vocal instruction, especially for students who still are finding confidence in their voice, Wilkins said.

Band, orchestra and choir still will have performances this winter with small audiences. Band and orchestra will perform Dec. 13, and choir will perform Dec. 20.

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The performances are shortened from what would typically happen in December with a full hour and a half choral concert.

“I’m excited the kids are going to get a chance to perform,” Wilkins said. “It’s a big part of your music development like in athletics — what’s the point if you never get to go out and play?”

“As a teacher, we get to relive it year after year, but as a student, you only have four years of high school,” Wilkins said. “That’s a small window of time you have to give the kids every opportunity to grow and learn.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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