Orange County parents and students reacted swiftly and strongly to Orange County Public Schools’ decision last week to allow varsity football games but to exclude game performances by the marching band, cheerleaders, dancers and JROTC.
One OCPS student decided to do something about it.
Sarah Paquette, a senior at West Orange High School who plays marimba and is percussion section leader, started a petition on change.org, and in less than 48 hours she reached her goal of 5,000 signatures. Earlier this week, the goal was raised to 7,500, and by Tuesday the number was above 7,100.
Folks who signed the petition also left comments, including a parent who said the decision is taking away the opportunity for seniors to have this on their resume for college and also takes away valuable time to be practicing if they want to continue their passion for dance, music or cheer in college. Another parent was disappointed that social distancing is being stressed yet the only contact sport is being allowed. A former football player said the band meant everything to the football team.
The overall message seemed to be this: Arts are equally as important as sports. Either they all play, or no one should play.
Parents also banded together on a new Facebook page called OCPS Parents: “All for One, One for All” for Friday Nights Lights.
“Inclusiveness and fairness for all clubs and organizations to fully participate in Friday Night Lights is our goal,” the Facebook page states.
On Monday, Aug. 31, the city of Orlando gave organizers approval to hold a rally promoting the inclusion of all students under the Friday Night Lights. The event was scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2, at Lake Eola. All OCPS high schools were invited to participate and bring posters, arrange performances and wear their school colors.
LET THEM ALL PLAY
OCPS' decision to allow football games to proceed applied only to the varsity football team; the JV and freshman teams were told all of their games have been postponed until spring.
The hashtag phrase #LetThemAllPlay began circulating following the OCPS decision.
Patti Tozzi, whose daughter, Sydney, is a senior on the WOHS dance team, wrote a letter to OCPS Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, requesting she revisit the decision to exclude the performers on game nights.
“All football locations are open air which, with social distancing and mask wearing, there is very little chance of spread of COVID-19,” Tozzi wrote. “There are other solutions to this problem beside canceling other groups and picking winners and loser amongst our children.”
“I respectfully ask that you reconsider your decision and implement some creative solutions that will allow ALL students to be a part of Friday Night Lights,” she wrote. “Otherwise, it is simply a biased choice to support one group of students over the other. Everyone has already lost so much, and it would be such an unnecessary shame for our kids to lose even more.”
Sydney was devastated to hear the decision, Tozzi said.
“She’s waited all of this time for her time to shine as a senior,” she said. “She’s captain of the team; it’s a goal that she was proud of. And (she was) just looking forward to all the senior opportunities they would have with dance.”
She praised the WOHS principal, Matt Turner, who she said has vowed to create other events for students of the arts.
In a weekly update to parents Friday, Aug. 28, Turner wrote: “Many of you have heard about the exclusion of band, dance, cheer and ROTC from varsity football games, but I wanted to let you know that I met with all of the leaders of our arts program this afternoon, and we will be working diligently in the coming weeks to creatively design opportunities to ensure that our students are given additional opportunities to participate I similar but socially distanced events.”
“We just want our voices to be heard and our children’s voices to be heard,” Tozzi said.
DEVASTATING FOR EVERYONE
Phillip Pacheco’s daughter, Caitlyn, is a senior cheerleader at Windermere High School. He said while he understands the 25% capacity decision, he thinks the students should be the ones filling the stadium seats. Per the OCPS decision, each football player can have two people in the stands.
“This is devastating for everyone, but I think the focus should be for the seniors,” he said. “If you can’t have the whole band, dance team, cheerleaders, allow the seniors.”
Pacheco said Caitlyn is disappointed at the thought of not being allowed to cheer or be part of the football games.
“As much as I want it to be for everyone, I think we need to protect the seniors and their experiences and get them as many experiences as we can,” Phillip Pacheco said. “My heart breaks for the seniors. It breaks my heart that I will never get to see my daughter cheer under the Friday night lights.”
With the opinion that OCPS was biased in its decision, Sarah started the petition the night she learned marching band would not be performing at the games.
“I waited for someone to start something or say something, but no one did — so I did,” she said.
Supporters began signing her petition immediately.
“Then I realized it wouldn’t take long to become a movement,” she said.
Sarah said she received an email from Ken Boyd, her band director, and he told her the band will be filming a performance of some kind.
“They’re allowing some parts of band to take place, like virtual recording,” she said. “If there ends up being an obvious difference in treatment in football and band, I am presenting this to the School Board. But I’m letting them know I have this petition.”
“I’m not trying necessarily to get band uncanceled, if they think that is safe … but if they are going to continue to cancel … something should happen to football,” Sarah said.
After being flooded with calls and emails, OCPS addressed parents’ concerns over the superintendent’s decision Friday, Aug. 28, and issued a press release stating the district is following the schedule provided by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
“Additional determinations were made in the interest of student safety while not hindering opportunities for athletes to receive college scholarships,” OCPS wrote. “It is important to note that competitive cheerleading is a winter sport. … Band students achieve scholarships through other means and have not been preparing for halftime shows this year.
Due to the current limitations being placed on attendance, several opportunities are being developed at high schools to promote school spirit and allow participation by bands, cheerleaders, dance teams, JROTC, etc. Thanks to principals, board members, band directors and others for developing creative solutions.”
OCPS listed alternative opportunities, such as videotaping pep rallies in the stadium prior to each football game and broadcasting them to the student body on game day, prerecording band performances and playing them over the loudspeakers during the game, and video recordings of student performances will be shown on scoreboards during selected games.
Regarding band, OCPS said it has not been canceled and “students continue to participate in band courses during the academic school day.”
The release continued: “OCPS music students earn thousands of dollars in scholarships each year due to their hard work and excellent instruction by our music educators. The majority of those scholarships are earned because of the high-level of proficiency demonstrated on their instrument based on an audition.
“Marching band is one component of a comprehensive music education that includes many genres and musical styles,” according to the release. “Marching band is an important element of our high school band programs and will continue to be included as part of the band curriculum as conditions allow.”
Michelle Territo’s daughter Josie is a senior and one of the three drum majors in the West Orange Marching Band.
“I heard back from a couple School Board members, and one of them said they picked football so those kids wouldn't miss out on college scholarship opportunities!” she said. “Well, the same goes for musicians and cheerleaders. If they miss this year and don't get this experience, they could miss out as well. … Both my husband and I are professional musicians; it’s how we make our living. He is the director of bands at Valencia College. … We both do music at Disney and perform locally.
“I got a scholarship to go to college for music when I was my daughter’s age, so to say it's important for the football players to play due to possible scholarship is a complete oversight of the student musicians and cheerleaders who are working towards that same possibility,” Territo said.
When OCPS was asked if it might reconsider its decision based on the opposition from students and parents, Michael Ollendorff, manager of media relations, replied on Monday: “At this time no changes are expected to be made. But, if we open safely and successfully we might be able to make additional considerations in the future.”
“I’m for the football players playing,” Tozzi said. “They are amazing; we absolutely support them. … Friday Night Lights is part of the American culture, (but) it is not just football. We know that without football none of it would be there, but they go together. It’s offensive and inappropriate to leave kids out of the game.
“There are other states that are including everyone, and there is just no reason why everyone cannot do this,” she said. “This was just the final straw. I don’t think (OCPS is) always looking at what’s best for the kids.”
Another WOHS band parent, Katheryn Snyder, felt sick to her stomach when she heard sports was being made a priority, she said. Her daughter, Elise, is a senior and was looking forward to marching and being a section leader.
“It does not seem fair at all because the band can socially distance,” she said. “The thing that bothers me the most is they made the decision behind closed doors. There was no committee, no bringing anyone else to the table. … And then when we called them out on it, the School Board and the superintendent shifted blame. The emails they’ve been receiving have been sent back to the individual principals.
“I heard they’ve called us club moms with nothing better to do,” Snyder said.
“We just want a voice at the table,” she said. “We know these times are hard, but there are solutions that are better that we can get to, but they’re not interested in listening to us.
“There are so many schools across the nation that are doing things, and just to say no, nobody else can come, it’s just not right,” Snyder said. “It’s frustrating. And it’s not like we don’t want to work with the school district. But we tried, we emailed and tried to give solutions, but to get shut down was just disrespectful.”
“A group of five of us came up with a bunch of solutions, and that’s just in a few minutes,” Tozzi said. “It’s a shame that they can’t come up with better solutions. … The whole point is they don’t have the right to pick winners and losers for our kids. That’s not what they’re there for.”
The principals at the five public high schools in West Orange County were asked to comment. Two deferred questions to the OCPS district office; three others did not respond. Several band directors also declined to comment.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.