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2021 Survey Report Shows Pandemic’s Effects on School Theatre

Thespians singing on stage at the International Thespian Festival

As in-person instruction has resumed this fall, theatre teachers and students across the country are thrilled to be returning to the stage. Yet school theatre programs — which offer critical support for social and emotional learning and life-skills development — continue to feel the pandemic’s effects, a survey by the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) shows.

Despite COVID-related complications, schools kept theatre going during the 2020-21 school year: Ninety-two percent of EdTA member teachers said they staged at least one in-person production, and 68 percent did at least one virtual production. Yet 53 percent of EdTA member teachers reported that student participation in productions fell by half or more last school year — indicating that many teachers will find themselves rebuilding their programs this year.

That’s one key finding in the report Impact of COVID-19 on Theatre Education, 2021, which outlines the results of EdTA’s May 2021 survey of member teachers and comparing results from a similar 2020 survey. EdTA is the professional association for theatre teachers; it also operates an honor society for theatre students and a fundraising foundation that expands access to school theatre.

“The pandemic’s effects may influence the status of theatre in schools for years to come,” said EdTA advocacy and policy adviser Jim Palmarini, who led the survey. “Recruitment of new students and those involved in theatre prior to the pandemic may be key to sustaining programs.”

Another key effect is on school theatre programs’ budgets. Many programs are funded primarily through box-office revenue. Only 14 percent of schools reported box-office earnings of $5,000 to $10,000 last school year, down from a full third of programs in 2019-20. And 40 percent of the educators estimated losses of $5,000 or more from canceled productions in 2020-21.

EdTA’s Educational Theatre Foundation has established the Thespian Relief Fund to help financially struggling programs with grants to support their honor society troupe and production costs. To date, $141,000 in grants have been issued to 156 schools, impacting more than 15,000 students.

The survey also showed several positive signs for the stability of theatre programs this school year:

  • 87 percent of theatre teachers expect to teach the same number of theatre classes or more
  • 96 percent plan to do live, in-person performances, and 35 percent plan to broadcast a live onstage performance to a virtual audience

While student learning loss, mental health, and social and emotional learning have been cited as priorities in states’ plans for spending COVID-relief funding from ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief), EdTA member teachers reported they are not seeing those funds applied directly to their theatre programs. Seventy-eight percent say their programs had not received any federal support dollars and 14 percent didn’t know if their programs would receive funds.

“For students re-entering the in-school learning environment after a year-plus away, school theatre can be a lifeline,” said Palmarini. “Theatre inherently nurtures social and emotional well-being and creates spaces where students can express themselves in safe and positive ways.”


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