As many schools are opening remotely this year, eyes are focused on how this will affect students’ academic learning. But extracurricular activities like band, choir, theater and athletics are also vital to the healthy development of children and young adults.

“Extracurriculars play a big role, especially for those kids where the classroom may not be their strongest point,” said Rene Olvera, MD, MPH, child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Straight-A students can get a lot of gratification just from scholastic endeavors, but for the rest of the kids their successes will be through activities like music, dance or sports. It gives them a chance to achieve and feel that sense of competency.”

Extracurricular activities are also crucial to social development and the formation of peer groups and lasting relationships, Dr. Olvera said. “It’s a natural way for them to socialize, just by going to practice or going to rehearsal with the same group of kids.”

The disruption to these activities can greatly impact the self-esteem of many children and adolescents, said Giancarlo Ferruzzi, MD, associate professor and clinical psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“For those that had a loss of an activity that provided them assistance to their self-esteem and some type of outlet for their frustration, those individuals are at even greater risk for the emergence of things like depression and social anxiety,” Dr. Ferruzzi said.

But at Hobby Middle School, band directors Stephen Weber and Carina Cisneros have come up with a creative solution.

Two weeks prior to the start of school, students had an opportunity to attend a virtual band camp. The camp is an annual event for band students, and in years past it provided students an opportunity to come back on campus, check out their instruments and get reacquainted with their friends.

“It gives them a kickstart to school,” said Weber.

And this year, the band directors made sure to provide the same opportunity in a virtual setting. It did, however, come with some challenges.

“You can’t have 65 middle school kids with instruments in a Zoom meeting. You just can’t,” said Weber. Delayed sound and other audio quirks also proved difficult, he added.

But by breaking down into smaller sectionals, getting creative with the mute feature and providing one-on-one instructional sessions, the students were able to play music together, make progress and feel like band was back.

“I can see the kids’ excitement,” said Carina Cisneros. “Just being able to see us and have even a semblance of a rehearsal, just something similar to before has been wonderful. And they have adjusted really well.”

Virtual versions of activities aren’t a perfect substitute, said Dr. Ferruzzi, noting that they lack the nuances of in-person social interaction important for development.

“But I think in the larger sense it speaks to thinking outside the box to look at ways that certain activities can be accomplished,” said Dr. Ferruzzi. “It can bridge the gap for these kids who currently are starving for interaction.”

All schools in the Northside Independent School District, which includes Hobby, will open remotely. But with the success of the virtual band camp, there are high hopes that band and other extracurricular classes can also resume successfully in a virtual setting once school starts.

Although it’s apparent that the kids miss physically being in the band hall and being in school, said Weber, safety is their main priority, and they are prepared to bring their patience, creativity and passion to the remote learning environment this fall.

“Band is not canceled,” said Cisneros. “We’re still going to do everything we can to give the kids a music education, still make it fun and still give them that opportunity to make music together.”