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‘West Side’ outside? La Jolla High School play ‘is being derailed’ by COVID-19 rule, upset backers say

La Jolla High's production of "West Side Story" may not be able to be held indoors because of COVID-19 restrictions.
La Jolla High School’s scheduled production of “West Side Story” may not be able to be held indoors because of COVID-19 restrictions, which organizers fear will scrap the show.
(Courtesy of Hector Jimenez)

After months of rehearsals and other preparations for its upcoming production of “West Side Story,” the La Jolla High School Theatre Arts Department has been told that indoor performances must be moved outdoors due to the recent regional spike in COVID-19 coronavirus cases. The notice, which came four weeks before opening night, has many students and parents upset about what they consider unfair treatment, and they’re worried the decision will jeopardize the show.

La Jolla High theater arts teacher Stacey Allen said he received an email from the San Diego Unified School District’s Visual and Performing Arts Department late Jan. 28 stating that “we were no longer allowed to perform our show indoors.”

The email followed a district announcement dated Jan. 10 and posted on the SDUSD website that states “district indoor activities, events and school dances are no longer allowable based on the number of positive COVID-19 case rates in San Diego County.”

However, athletics are allowed to continue indoors, following a 2021 court ruling that allowed all high school sports to resume.

Hector Jimenez, whose son Benjamin is in the La Jolla High production, told the La Jolla Light that the theater department doesn’t have the ability to stage the musical outdoors with only four weeks’ notice. “Our musical is being derailed,” he said.

Jimenez wrote in a Jan. 31 email to Russ Sperling, director of SDUSD’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, that “our public school does not have an outdoor stage, an outdoor sound system or an outdoor lighting system, much less the money to purchase any of this equipment required to move our production outdoors.”

Jimenez said the theater department and its Drama Booster Club, a group of theater students’ parents that supports the department through fundraising and other assistance, have already spent more than $12,000 on the production, which they planned to recoup from ticket sales.

Allen said “the situation simply isn’t fair to the students at our school [who] have been working extremely hard for the past three months, and to have it all taken away at the last minute is just a tragedy.”

“The hardest thing to accept is that our athletes are allowed to play indoors with people in the stands, but our performing arts students are not,” he said. “We all want our kids to be safe, but all students should be treated fairly and equally.”

Sperling told the Light that the status of the prohibition on indoor events will be reconsidered Wednesday, Feb. 9.

He added that he is not involved in the decision, but given that coronavirus case numbers are falling, “chances are good that the LJHS production will be able to be held as planned. Rehearsals are able to continue as they have been.”

Sperling noted that athletics are covered under the court ruling that allows their events to continue. “The district is following that ruling and making its decisions on all other indoor events based on recommendations from the various governmental health agencies,” he said.

La Jolla High School Drama Booster Club members discuss the future of the school's "West Side Story" production Jan. 31.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Jimenez said he was informed in November that La Jolla High could proceed with the planned musical indoors without masks and with an audience, following the same protocols as indoor sports.

The 50 cast and crew members for “West Side Story” have worn masks during rehearsals and are tested weekly at the school for the coronavirus, according to current district guidelines.

Jimenez said there have been no infections due to participation in the rehearsals.

He added that the theater department plans additional precautions for the four scheduled performances between Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, March 5, including requiring audience members to wear masks and provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test. It also plans to reduce audience capacity from 500 to 300, with open seats between groups, and install air purifiers along the aisles.

During a Jan. 31 Zoom meeting of the booster club, Ken Grudko, a theater parent and a pulmonary and critical care physician, said he is “deep into [COVID] protocols. … It’s really remarkable and a demonstration of efficacy and safety that you really haven’t had an outbreak within the theater group during this peak of Omicron.”

He said he would write a letter to the district providing epidemiological data to support holding the performances indoors.

“We support our athletes,” Jimenez said, “but the district’s actions are offensive. Theater is essential, at least for these 50 kids.”

Allen asked parents to “keep applying pressure,” and the booster club agreed to have students and parents write letters to district officials and request to speak at the SDUSD board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 8.

The club also is considering legal action against the district if the play is not allowed indoors, parent Jim McInerney said.

“We need to stand ready to do whatever it takes to save the show,” Jimenez said. ◆