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Arts Education Access in the Time of COVID-19

Jee-Hoon Krska is the founder and lead teacher of Keys 2 Success, which provides classical piano instruction to pre-K and elementary school students in Newark, New Jersey. She is also a partner and Leadership Council member of Arts Ed Newark.

When the announcement came, on March 13, that Newark schools would be closing in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, my first thought was, “Maybe we’ll take a break from the music lessons.”

Before the pandemic, I was teaching classical piano to children at the South Street School in the Ironbound section of Newark, 5 days a week. It’s a voluntary program for the students, organized through the non-profit I started in 2016 to bring classical music to children who might not otherwise have access. In particular, the program—Keys 2 Success—serves children who live in the Pennington Court public housing project. I’ve watched as many of these children bloom in confidence, focus and self-management the longer they participate. Music is transformative, whether you listen, play, perform, or compose.  

Keys 2 Success owns the 20 keyboards the students use to learn and practice. Ordinarily, most of that equipment is housed at the school so that children across all the grades, from pre-K to fifth, have access. A few keyboards are housed in a common room of the housing project. When the schools and common rooms closed, my “Keys kids” not only lost their classroom but their learning equipment.

The easy decision would have been to suspend piano lessons and put the program on hold until September. Easy, but not the right decision, and certainly not in line with the reason Keys 2 Success exists in the first place. The goal  has always been to offer children in an under-served community the same musical opportunity as my own children have in the suburbs. My daughters are continuing their music studies remotely. So, how to make that happen for my Newark students?

About a third of our “Keys” students have a piano or keyboard at home. Some received one through the donation drive we held last year; some parents bought their students a small, inexpensive children’s keyboard, which is fine for our purposes; one family saved up for almost a year to purchase a full-sized keyboard for their child. Most of these students also have access to the internet, through a parent’s cellphone if not a home computer. For these lucky students, I set out to schedule one-on-one time for remote piano and music instruction.

Very quickly, I realized that even the children who have access to equipment and the internet don’t have equal access to a learning environment. An unacknowledged loss in this experiment with remote learning is that of structure. Many of my students no longer have a reliable wake-up time, or breakfast, or daily schedule. Their parents’ work hours may have been disrupted (most are still considered essential), and the kids are now sharing limited space with all family members, 24 hours a day. Some working parents may be out for a part of every day, and an older sibling or grandparent is charged with childcare—but that caretaker isn’t responsible for (or even capable of) managing the younger student’s schoolwork. Some of my kids are tired because they’re staying up late—why go to bed “on time” with no defined schedule the next day?

Beyond the loss of structure, there are technical barriers for some of my Keys kids. One of my most motivated students is a second grader I’ll call Anna. She lives with her mother, who speaks no English, and a younger sibling. Yes, Anna has a donated keyboard and her mother’s cell phone for internet access. That doesn’t mean the resources of the internet are actually accessible to her. Over two weeks of phone calls, I managed to talk Anna through the process of downloading Zoom, accessing her mother’s email to retrieve a link to a Zoom lesson with me, and using the options on the app to get through a lesson productively. My own daughters and most of their peers have an adult in the home who uses technology daily for our white-collar, office-based work. Anna, however, doesn’t have that person at home; at 7, she is the person responsible for technology-based tasks for her family.

Of course, Anna would be considered one of the “lucky ones” because she has a keyboard and internet access. Two-thirds of my students don’t have a keyboard, and many have limited or inconsistent internet access. For these children, the loss of musical lessons represents an enormous lost opportunity. I’m talking not only of the value of music in a child’s intellectual development, like the often-cited correlation between music and math ability. Equally important is the sense of self-efficacy and reliability that children desperately need when everything else in their world is disrupted.

I know the enormous value of this benefit from personal experience. Growing up in Malaysia, my sister and I took piano lessons like most other little girls in our middle-class neighborhood. My family emigrated to Queens when I was 11, and suddenly nothing was easy or familiar. Language, culture, public school, even food in the grocery store—everything was strange and stressful. But we had a piano, and playing piano is the same in every language. Even more important, one of the few reliable conditions of my new life was that if I practiced, my ability to play got better.

Practicing piano was one of the few activities available to me to regain a sense of control during the chaotic first years of adjustment. The repetition was calming. I could choose music that reflected my moods as well as my expanding capabilities. In a period when my constant experience was “not-knowing,” practicing and playing piano restored my confidence, in myself and in the world.

Now my “Keys kids” are experiencing different but significant stress associated with disruption, lack of structure, and uncertainty about how their future world will operate. The new rules haven’t been written yet, and the old rules don’t apply. Yet they lack the opportunity to manage the new chaos—no matter how large or small—through the power of music instruction and practice. For me, this is one of the most heart-breaking side effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

The science writer Ed Yong recently observed in an interview that “pandemics often expose existing fault lines in societies, and they reveal whom a society cares about and whom it often ignores.” (Fresh Air, April 1, 2020) The children in Newark are experiencing this unfortunate truth firsthand. Our society doesn’t value the enormous benefits that musical education offers, particularly in managing times of stress.

Worse, our society is demonstrating that it doesn’t value these children in the same way we value the children attending more affluent schools, which can offer more resources for all. They are, for now, among those we are choosing to ignore. I’m keenly aware that the break in music instruction is just one of many ways my “Keys kids” will experience coronavirus measures that my own daughters will never have to know.

Yet I’m hopeful. Maybe by shining a light into this particular fault line, a different future becomes possible. Long term, a much-needed redistribution of wealth in our country could mean that inequities in education, opportunity, and—yes, access to musical instruction—become less severe and less pervasive. In the short term, maybe it spurs a few people to take out that dusty keyboard or guitar, purchased for a child who’s now grown or an adult with a temporary musical ambitions, and donate it. When these donations reach the hands of children who can’t afford to buy them, they could spark a lifetime of good.  

Jee-Hoon Y. Krska, Ph.D. Keys 2 Success

Transforming The Lives of Newark's Youth Through Classical Music Education


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