The arts education sector is in limbo, with only three weeks to go before extracurricular programmes start and no specific directives yet on how to operate.
This is despite public health guidelines for schools having been issued on Wednesday, says a subcommittee of the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association.
The association is concerned about being put in the same basket as regular schooling without consideration for the fact that COVID-19 safety measures are much easier to maintain in their studios, where students attend for just an hour, with no breaks and no canteens.
Moreover, they argue, the guidelines must be specific to each discipline. Measures for dance, for example, cannot be the same as those for playing an instrument, said Lorraine Aquilina, who heads the association’s arts education subcommittee.
Those putting together the guidelines, she said, need to liaise with representatives from each area to come up with measures that are not only safe but can also work for that discipline.
Aquilina, who is the director of projects at the School of Performing Arts, insists that the authorities should help these schools in the same way they have helped other sectors, such as tourism.
She called for the wage supplement to be extended until classes are back to normal.
Business plans had suddenly altered with COVID-19, along with added expenses to purchase new equipment to comply with measures, while income was decreasing, she said.
A subsidy for loss of students?
The subcommittee is also suggesting a subsidy for loss of students due to restrictions on numbers and for students sitting for performing arts exams; funding schemes for programmes; and more tax incentives for parents and students attending these schools.
Clear directives are needed well in time so they can be implemented, Aquilina said, highlighting how important it is for students to continue their training without interruption.
“Training for the performer is lifelong and we are at risk of losing the work that schools have been developing over the last 30 years, as well as having untrained performers and crew, and uneducated audiences.”
The pandemic has sparked concern that arts education is not considered essential
With no concrete directives in place and barely a mention of the industry in Wednesday’s guidelines, Alan Montanaro, director of the international Helen O’Grady Academy and member of the subcommittee, still has “no idea whether we have to adapt our operations”.
The drama school, for example, rents school halls around the island for the convenience of parents and students, and the lack of specific guidelines means it does not know what to market at a time when it should be advertising its services.
Capping the numbers may also result in an end to scholarships for children who benefit from its programmes, he said, as these would take the place of already limited paying students. It would not be financially feasible to go ahead with reduced class complements.
Montanaro stressed the importance of the creative arts for students’ mental well-being in general, but now more than ever, following the unexpected six-month hiatus of these programmes.
Dance, drama and music education 'safest form of recreation'
Another subcommittee member, Marisha Bonnici, artistic director of Seed Dance Studios, has forged ahead, with clear plans laid out on how to operate her dance school.
She has based them on the precautionary measures taken during her summer programme and on international experience.
She is offering a hybrid approach, but having her own premises also means it is easier to control the situation even though the government has not yet issued its guidelines.
Differentiating between performing arts extracurricular programmes and regular academic schools, she highlighted the formers’ smaller numbers in the same venue, the individual approach and the “natural” social distancing in a dance class. These dance, drama and music education programmes are the safest form of recreation, Bonnici said, with ‘bubbles’ being part and parcel of the set-up.
“If kids end up not going to school, we, together with sports, are their only lifeline. We cannot be side-lined and considered ‘extra’.
“The government needs to be aware that we cater for thousands of students,” Bonnici said, adding that “many have started nurturing a talent and cannot be left in a vacuum”.
The pandemic has sparked concern, once again, that arts education is not considered essential, said association president Howard Keith Debono.
The association is working to ensure it is given its due importance.
“Unfortunately, with so little time left, being in limbo as regards specific directives is now creating panic in the case of arts education schools, tutors and parents,” Debono said, calling for “clarifications to avoid grey areas so everyone can put their minds at rest”.