South Dakota's high school all-state chorus, orchestra event threatened by COVID-19

Event was already moved from fall to spring

Members of the South Dakota all-state chorus participate in rehearsal during the 2019 event at the Premier Center in Sioux Falls. (South Dakota Public Broadcasting photo)

PIERRE — While spring sports are slated to take place as usual for South Dakota high schools later this year, the state’s largest fine arts event is in danger of being drastically impacted or canceled due to COVID-19.

The South Dakota High School Activities Association’s all-state chorus and orchestra performance is scheduled for April 19-20 at the Premier Center in Sioux Falls. It includes about 1,200 students from more than 100 communities, including 150 orchestra members and 1,000 chorus members, SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos said. The event also draws thousands of audience members in a typical year.

The two main options to adjust the format include either having the event without a live audience, or removing chorus from the event.. The outlook was discussed Monday during a special meeting of the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s Board of Directors, which approved to move forward with the state’s spring extracurricular events schedule without many changes related to COVID-19.

Swartos said because of the number of students involved and because choirs and bands have been closely watched as a potential source for spreading aerosols related to COVID-19, the SDHSAA will have to make a hard decision.

“I hate this,” Swartos told the board. “But we have to be able to justify what we’re doing and it’s going to be very difficult to do. I’ll tell you that, with the number of kids that we have.”


The event is typically in the fall, but was moved to the spring due to COVID-19 with the goal of having it during the school year.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, has been involved in conducting an aerosol study with the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland related to COVID-19 risks in performing arts activities. Findings announced in December indicated that if music participants — for example, playing wind instruments, singing, acting, speaking or dancing — wear surgical-style masks with a slit for the mouthpiece, and use an appropriate bell cover, that aerosol emission is reduced between 60 and 90 percent. Singers produce aerosol, the NFHS said, at similar rates as woodwinds and brass. Participants have also been encouraged to use multi-layered bell covers over all wind instruments, with distancing guidelines of 6 by 6 feet and limiting rehearsals to 30 minutes.

NFHS director of performing arts and sports and co-chair of the aerosol study James Weaver, who previously worked for the SDHSAA, has been in communication with Swartos about how to proceed with South Dakota’s event.

Two primary options are currently on the table for all-state chorus and orchestra:

  • One option calls for social distancing of quartets, with all participants wearing masks and bell covers on all wind instruments. Rehearsals would be in 90-minute increments, and there would be no live audience except for school music directors. A Saturday night concert, typically televised by South Dakota Public Broadcasting, would be held as normal.

  • The second option is to cancel all-state chorus and only hold the all-state orchestra, with time periods to allow air exchange cycling in the Premier Center. Students would be allowed a set amount of ticket vouchers for attendance.

Swartos said it’s also possible that the entire event could be canceled. He said the SDHSAA’s task force on sports and activities related to coronavirus did not reach a consensus on how to proceed with all-state chorus and orchestra.
“Those on the medical side were quite leery of holding it, to be honest, given the number of kids and the forced movement of air,” Swartos said. “The folks on the school side wanted us to continue to look at options to have it.”

A survey is being sent to the state’s music directors and a decision will likely be made at the SDHSAA’s March board meeting. He said making the decision in another month will allow the state to consider the up-to-date COVID-19 conditions in South Dakota.

“I’ll get accused of being against the arts, but of the seven executive directors of our history of over 115 years, I’m guessing I have one of the deepest backgrounds in the fine arts and among the most appreciation for the music. … We’re going to hold off as long as we can in making a decision. But it’s a tough decision.”

The SDHSAA has held its entire slate of championships and fine arts events in 2020-21, with modifications made to some events, such as the state oral interpretation festival being held digitally, or changing the format of the state cheer and dance and gymnastics competitions.


Mitchell state music events mostly to unfold as scheduled

Mitchell is slated to host all-state jazz band on May 6-8 and all-state band on May 26-27. Both of those events are expected to take place mostly as normal, SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director Brooks Bowman said Monday.

For the all-state band event, the bands would be split into four separate groups instead of the regular format of two groups. Two bands would rehearse and perform on each day, spreading out the event over Friday and Saturday.

Masks and bell coverings would be required for the participants and seating would be blocked off at the Mitchell High School Performing Arts Center to allow for social distancing.

Bowman said additional students have been added to each band to even them out and the SDHSAA has hired additional conductors to be able to hold the event.

“We feel really confident that event will go off without a problem,” Bowman said.

A schedule has not yet been determined for all-state jazz band, Bowman said, but fewer than 50 students are planned to participate and they will be split into three performing groups, meaning the event will be able to take place close to normal.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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