It’s been a long and frustrating journey for OCPS parents and students who have been fighting to get marching band, cheer, dance and JROTC back onto the sidelines for Friday Night Lights.
When Orange County Public Schools announced it wasn’t going to be allowing members of the different groups participate during football games this season in late August, parents and students around the county erupted with a torrent of rage and confusion to the decision.
While football and other sports would be allowed to finally get their seasons underway after a lengthy delay due to COVID-19, many took to social media to voice their displeasure — including a group of OCPS parents who formed the “All for One, One for All for Friday Nights Lights on Facebook — while some participated in a rally at Lake Eola on Wednesday, Sept. 2. Then there was a petition started by West Orange High School senior Sarah Paquette — a marimba player and a percussion section leader — that exploded online and now has over 7,000 signatures.
Despite the headaches faced by students and parents, there may be a silver lining in the clouds that have hovered above their heads for months that comes in the form of a message that was sent out to OCPS principals by superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins.
“After review of the data, we are comfortable with allowing cheerleaders, pep bands, dancers and color guard to attend the game if desired,” Jenkins said in the message.
While there are no specifics as to how the plan will go into action, it’s believed that the decision will be left up to each school. But regardless of the specifics, the news was met by an excitement by both parents and students alike.
“I’m so excited,” said Patti Tozzi, whose daughter, Sydney Tozzi, is a senior on the West Orange High dance team. “I felt like, ‘Wow, our voices were heard,’ and we were able to use our voices for our children, and our children used their voices as well — they did their part in the fight to be heard.”
For Paquette the news came as a bit of a shock given that the county had made a decision the previous week and things felt like they weren't going to budge given OCPS’ persistent messaging.
“It really seemed like they weren't going to go further than that — they gave restrictions to football players and they gave band a little more freedom, and I kind of thought that was where they were going to end,” Paquette said. “I was completely not expecting them to release that decision — it’s really unexpected.”
Though there’s a lot for band, cheer, dance and JROTC students to look forward to, there still remains the issue of facing schools possibly being shut down for weeks on end due to the ongoing pandemic.
“I’m so excited. I felt like, ‘Wow, our voices were heard,’ and we were able to use our voices for our children, and our children used their voices as well — they did their part in the fight to be heard.”
— Patti Tozzi, WOHS parent
Most recently West Orange High was the latest school to be shutdown as 10-positive cases of COVID-19 shifted the school entirely to LaunchED@Home — which started Monday, Sept. 21, and will run through Friday, Oct. 2. There were 159 students and staff members who were identified as having direct contact with with those individuals.
Due to the shutdown, the West Orange football team will lose out on two more football games — after having its game against Evans canceled due to cases of COVID popping up on the Evans football team — which in turn makes it a bittersweet moment for those parents and students at the school.
“We were just kind of bummed,” Patti Tozzi said. “We were so excited that we were going to be the game versus Boone on Friday and they could start getting prepared to have that experience again, but then we got word pretty quickly that was definitely not happening. But I do look at the other schools who are going to have that and the kids that get to enjoy their Friday Night Lights in the next few weeks and I’m so excited for them.”
Even when marching band is allowed to take in Friday nights, it will look a bit different this year, said both Paquette and Michelle Territo — whose daughter, Josie Territo, is a senior drum major at West Orange.
The band has only had two rehearsals this year, and with missing band camp and the lack of time, there probably won’t be a halftime show — meaning bands will probably just stick to playing the normal songs during a game.
“It is an issue at this point — we’re halfway past September and usually the kids would have been practicing their show for at least a month-and-a-half,” said Michelle Territo. “It’s not like, ‘OK, go band,’ you have to teach 200 people a show, so I’m not sure how that will work out but I know at least they were very happy about being able to play together.”
In the end, for seniors like Paquette, it doesn’t matter how they do things in the band — all that matters is that they're allowed to do it just once.
“Band is my family, and I think it’s really important that we have at least one performance together — one game together,” Paquette said. “I always play like it’s the last time I’m going to play. Senior year is so special — there are so many senior celebrations… I’d be so grateful to just have an opportunity to have one last time to play with everyone.”