While increasing COVID-19 case numbers have led the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District to switch all of its students to distance learning, Prior Lake High School Choir students had the opportunity to safely practice their singing skills in the classroom with the donation of special “singers masks” to the program.

The masks were first developed by Broadway performers and professional musicians in response to the pandemic. The masks have more structure than the average face mask and keep fabric away from the face making them more conducive to singing.

While the masks can be purchased online, one PLHS choir family took it upon themselves to ensure singing would go on this school year with no additional cost to students and their families.

With funds donated by the Patrons of the Arts & Activities Booster Club, David, Tyanne and Caleb Riegle cut, assembled and sewed 200 masks for PLHS choir students.

The masks cost roughly $5 each to make and take roughly 55 minutes to create.

For the approximately 30% of choir students who were in the classroom each day during the hybrid learning model, the masks made all the difference, said PLHS Choir Directors Randi Erlandson and Rob Hahn.

“It’s been huge from the moment we gave the kids their masks and they put them on and started singing they all noticed an instant difference in just how much easier it was to sing with that particular style mask,” Erlandson said.

Like most classes, choir looks different this year due to the coronavirus. The hybrid learning model meant only about a third of students were in class each day as they rotated between A and B groups, while another third made up of completely online students tuned in from home.

For a choir class, online learning makes practicing even more challenging as students cannot hear each other in real time.

“The lag in a technological setting like that is significant,” Hahn said. “We can’t actually ever have them unmute their microphone or sing because there’s so much discrepancy in how quick that gets back to us. Those kids at home they’re singing with whatever audio and video whenever it gets to them.”

But the masks allowed the students practicing in-person to do so safely and those behind the screen to hear their in-person classmates more clearly.

“To make rehearsal better for everyone here and make rehearsal better for everyone who’s out of the building on a given day — it was instant and it was tremendously impactful,” Hahn said.

For many students, choir offers a creative outlet and provides them with a sense of connection with other students and the school, Erlandson and Hahn agreed.

“We’ve had kids express that they really enjoy the fact that they get to do choir everyday even if it’s not quite like how they want it to be,” Hahn said. “This is an emotional connection for them, not just the technical content of singing and music theory and that stuff. It’s about the people and in the pandemic that’s what we’re losing the most and that’s the most humanizing part of some of our days is being able to interact as a choir.”

Choir and other humanities classes are crucial to educating the whole child, Erlandson said. For many students, choir class provides an hour of emotional release in their day and a time to connect with their peers.

As choir kids themselves, Erlandson and Hahn realize how important classes like choir can be to a students overall education experience.

“We believe there’s enough value in it, we believe kids benefit from it and we want to do everything we can to make sure whatever experience they get in our classrooms it’s still meaningful and important to them,” Erlandson said.

The choir class experience wouldn’t have been possible without the boosters and the Riegles, they said.

Even though students are once again returning to learning at a distance, being able to hear them in the classroom again was a moving experience, Hahn said.

While there may not be a chance in the near future for all the students to sing together and no live performances, Hahn and Erlandson will continue to try to work around the obstacles that have come from the coronavirus and provide students with a valuable choir experience.

“We’re proud of this program and we want to show to this community that we’re still doing everything we can,” Erlandson said.