- November 22, 2021
First responders and health care workers have been on the front lines of caring for coronavirus patients for several weeks now in the United States.
They test and treat individuals with symptoms of the virus. They set up testing centers and help ensure travelers are following proper health protocols. They sacrifice their health overall to help others. They are heroes on the battlefield — and among them is Windermere High’s band director, Rob Darragh.
Along with his duties as the school’s band director, Darragh also serves as a staff sergeant and squad leader with the Army National Guard’s 13th Army Band.
Members of his unit recently were called to South Florida — the epicenter of Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak — to assist with various tasks. It happened during Orange County Public Schools’ scheduled spring break.
“It’s interesting, because the extended spring break happened, and then we got notified … the first part of spring break that we were on kind of an alert status,” Darragh said. “A couple days later it was like, ‘Yep, report in.’”
Darragh’s unit’s original tasking was to come to Miami and set up screening centers and screen people in whatever role they were assigned. There were test swabbers, specimen collectors, traffic directors and more.
“There was one at C.B. Smith Park and another at Hard Rock Stadium where the Dolphins play, which is a massive testing center,” Darragh said. “It’s a very large operation and requires a lot of staffing and things like that. Then we were re-tasked in the middle of all this to go to an airport locally and to also screen New York passengers — any flight from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut coming in, and I think New Orleans has been added to that list recently. … We run three shifts at the airport because of the way the flight schedules are working.”
At the airport where the National Guard currently is, Darragh said, they have to wear masks and gloves, along with other personal protective equipment. Members of the National Guard then bring passengers off the planes to where Department of Health workers are there to screen and take paperwork from them.
“We’re really just there to make sure everything is good,” he said. “We have law enforcement with us, as well. Really, security and making sure people follow the correct procedures outlined by the governor is my purpose right now. Earlier this week, we were at the testing center and bounced around different spots. Some of us would swab, some of us were collecting hazard waste … some of us are collecting the samples, and they get refrigerated and sent off for testing.”
Throughout these tasks, National Guard members must follow the advisories and guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the end of the day, everyone takes the necessary precautions to ensure they take care of themselves, their families and others, Darragh said.
Darragh’s unit also is unique because all the soldiers in the 13th Army Band are musicians. Some also are teachers and doctors or serve in other capacities. Although the reason for the unit coming together this time isn’t ideal, it gives its members a chance to reconnect while serving.
“You see all these different career fields doing their jobs here at the National Guard, and they all have these civilian lives,” Darragh said. “My commanding officer in the guard is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School band director, so he and I were just talking yesterday about marching band and what we’re doing. I get a chance to collaborate with other band directors even doing the National Guard.
“We all come together when it’s time to do the mission, and you would never know we were an Army band,” he said. “We try to give back to the community as much as we can with the National Guard, and it’s kind of our mission. It’s all about serving the people of the state.”
Although Darragh is actively serving with the National Guard, distance learning began for Orange County Public Schools students March 30. That includes his band students.
However, he and his students already are a few steps ahead, thanks to early preparation done before the full effects of COVID-19 even began to have an impact on the community.
Each year, Darragh hosts eighth-grade nights, when students who will be freshmen and join the band in the fall learn the fundamentals of both marching and playing in preparation for their transition from middle to high school.
Many of those already have taken place, along with Darragh’s leadership camp, which is part of his selection process for the band leaders next year. Interested students go through a week of leadership camp, and drum majors are selected from a separate audition.
The band also has much of its music for the marching show. All this was done prior to Spring Break, and much of it was because of the band’s quest for greatness next year.
“We did so well this year — we were fourth in the state, which is huge for this third-year school here — (and) I want to be first in the state this year, that’s my goal,” he said. “The kids, I think, are right there with me. They’re all tracking what needs to happen and they’re all on board. We had that camp, everything went well and I have my leadership selections.
“Most bands have not done that, and I think if I wouldn’t have done that, it would’ve been a very different situation,” he said. “This prepares us to press on and keep pressing on.”
Students will learn their music, as well as submit video performances and other assignments, as they distance learn for the time being. They might not be able to come together and rehearse, but it keeps everyone playing.
“Basically, I’m just pulling double duty,” he said. “In my free time or breaks in the guard, I’ll be on the school laptop doing schoolwork (and) trying to get everybody to do what they need to do for class. … I do appreciate the students and their flexibility through all this. It’s a pleasure to teach when we are as successful as we are and everybody’s on board, and it’s a very good experience for us all, I think.”
Darragh added he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without the help of his wife, Lynsey. She is a music theory and keyboard teacher at Windermere High and also teaches one of the jazz bands. Although they are apart, they communicate daily.
“She does a lot of things extra for me if I need it done while I’m gone, so it’s quite nice to have her there,” he said. “A lot of what she does is voluntary. I don’t think I could do what I do without her also being there.”
Although the societal impacts resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have been challenging, Darragh knows he, his students and society as a whole will come out on the other side.
“When you’re hit with something like this, you do what’s necessary, you do your job to the fullest of your ability, and that’s all anyone can really ask,” he said. “A lot of what I do with teaching, the students motivate me, and I do it for them. … With some situations, I don’t believe that you’re always prepared for things, but that’s life, and you learn to be adaptive and you overcome situations. I’m sure we’ll get through this to the best of our ability as a society.”