A typical school day for Elon University junior Skyler Sajewski began at 7 a.m., starting with ballet, history, economics and tap classes, then rehersal for the upcoming musical. She would get back to her apartment around 11 p.m.
Then, the COVID pandemic hit.
The musical theater major who was used to “constantly running from place to place” returned home to Florida to shelter in place. She’s worried about missing out on “literally all of it” in terms of preparing for her future career.
“To be a well-rounded musical theater performer, you have to have a certain set of skills and be really good at them,” Sajewski said. “And you know, I go to a school to constantly get better. And this year, if I reach a plateau of no growth it could be potentially harming versus someone who went all their four years.”
Sajewski is not alone in her anxieties for the future. She has friends who are considering taking a semester -- or even a year -- off, realizing that an online arts education may not be worth it.
When she returned home, Sajewski and her peers were faced with “Zoom University” -- what many students are calling online classes -- as musical theater majors. In last semester’s acting class, she and her fellow “MTs,” were “literally screaming in each other’s faces” when they were working on Greek theater.
Into the screens of their laptops.
For a “pretty demanding” class “where you really have to get into your body and your voice,” moving to remote learning required adjustments.
“In acting, there's a lot of, with permission, there's a lot of touching,” Sajewski said. “We do partner warm ups, to get the voice open and ready by, patting them on the back really hard and doing all of this physical activity with your partner where you're in very close corners. [Then], the pandemic hits. We are now home, my lovely scene partner and I, that we're working on the Greek [acting class] and are now doing it over Zoom, which is incredibly hard because you can only see their face.”
Sajewski said it wasn’t ideal for acting class.
“How can you see what my face is doing? You know what I mean? So we acted right up to the camera. So even though the Greek piece is supposed to be a whole body experience, we were mostly just using our face. It's hard to act over Zoom. Like the whole point of acting is to react. And when you're reacting over a camera where someone could be frozen one second, it's just, it's not organic. It doesn't feel like it's supposed to feel, but you know, we did our best with it.”
Sajewski said she considered taking a gap year.
“When I found out that classmates of mine were doing that, and that idea became real to me, it honestly freaked me out because I've always known that I was graduating in 2022 when I was going to move to New York and start my life. And for that to be affected by this unprecedented pandemic is, is really scary to me.”
Sidney Rubinowicz said she plans to take a gap year from her production design studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Productions at Carnegie Mellon were canceled for the first semester and are planning on a double season for the second.
“Next year, I was going to start getting lead stage manager assignments,” Rubinowicz said. “And I would be really, really sad if I didn't have those. And for me, production is a bigger part of my education and my classes are, and I think a lot of people agree with that. So I will just be back in a year, hopefully things are better.”
The would-be junior at Carnegie Mellon says that she’s always been “five years ahead” in knowing what she wanted to do. Before middle school, she knew where she wanted to attend high school and in high school, she immediately knew where she wanted to go to college.
“It's so weird to be like, ‘I have no idea what I'm doing,’” she said. “I think I'm just a little more open minded now. And I think it's not even that, I was like, ‘You have to have a plan’ but … now everyone is thrown for a loop.”
Carnegie Mellon is not offering a refund on housing or tuition, but they will allow students to choose to stay or withdraw after 10 days on campus.
At Tisch School of the Arts at New York University -- like many other universities -- students are asking for partial reimbursement from the spring semester.
“NYU ignores the fact that us art students will be paying full price for an education that lacks the facilities, equipment, technology, services and hands-on experience we are explicitly paying for,” the petition stated.
“While we appreciate the concerted efforts of our professors to salvage what’s left of our education, we reject the assumption that an online Zoom education is equitable in content and value.”
Students wrote testimonials to represent the studios that they are a part of at Tisch. Dancers, actors, filmmakers and writers alike came together in a series of Google documents to tell the administration how they were feeling.
One student in dance program wrote that “these technique classes require specific equipment and a certain amount of space in order to be able to execute the exercises efficiently. Dancers also require physical attention and corrections from our instructors which is almost impossible to do on Zoom.”
Tisch later issued fee refunds.
When performing arts curriculums will resume in person at schools nationwide is unknown. Sajewski and her colleagues say they realize you don’t have to go to school to work in the arts. But a bachelor of fine arts has its benefits.
“You could very well just go out there and try your best, people can do it. They made [in the industry], they didn't go to school and they're fine,” she said. “But those of us that choose to go, further their education because we want to learn and better ourselves in the best way we know possible, which is through schooling. And if we can’t, you know, why am I going to school?”
Future job prospects, not always robust for artists, are fewer because of the pandemic.
“There's so many artists without a job right now. And it's scary.”