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There’s little argument that music education enhances the social and emotional wellbeing of students. Music activities are thought to help build confidence and enhance collaborative work skills, social awareness and even empathetic behaviors. Keeping school music programs viable is important, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, layered safety mitigation strategies and diligence in following them are also crucial.
“Thankfully there’s good safety guidance for music educators,” said Matthew Bufis, Director of Bands and Lead Teacher for Fine Arts in Evanston Township High School District 202. “We’ve adopted the Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines that have been informed by aerosol studies circulated by the National Association for Music Education.”
Since the early spring last year the public has heard a lot about aerosols and their risks. In March 2020, aerosols (droplet emissions) deposited in the air during a 2½-hour indoor church chorus rehearsal in Washington state caused 52 out of the 61 chorus singers to become ill with COVID-19, with two people dying.
That unfortunate event was a catalyst for accelerated medical studies that have led to better COVID-19 guidance for schools across the country.
From the studies, school administrators now know that both singing and playing wind instruments are considered the most high-risk music activities, particularly indoors, and require rather stringent safety protocols.
ETHS has taken safety mitigation protocols seriously.
“We put bell covers around the bottom openings of the wind instruments,” Bufis said. “They’ve been tested for effectiveness, and we know that like masks for people, the use of bell covers diminishes the spread of aerosols.”
The covers are made of multilayered dense fabric and sized to fit the full range of available wind instruments. Student musicians playing wind instruments are also supplied with slitted masks custom-shaped to provide filtering protection for the musicians using mouthpieces of different-sized and -shaped instruments.
Spacing, ventilation aid safety
The high school musicians are also responsible for maintaining good hygiene protocols – for example, cleaning their instruments, music stands and hands regularly. For safety, band musicians are spaced three feet apart when performing or rehearsing outdoors; indoor playing requires six feet of distancing of band musicians and three additional feet for trombonists. The same social distancing protocols apply to choral singers as well as performers in musical theater.
The ETHS Music Department is also employing good ventilation to help keep students and staff safe. Safety strategies include using a device to measure the current air exchange in rehearsal rooms, increasing the airflow to the maximum capacity and changing rehearsal spaces if a rehearsal time exceeds a safe aerosol level in the current room. Creating and maintaining a safe environment for ETHS musicians takes time and financial resources – plus the will and cooperation of students to become vaccinated.
Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s music programs, like those of District 202, follow the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the IDPH for the most high-risk departments: instrumental music and chorus.
Choral music, brass and woodwinds require six feet of spacing between musicians and nine feet of distancing between trombone players and other musicians. Special hygiene is required for shared instruments, and woodwind instruments are not to be shared at all.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ubiquitous recorder can only be played in an outdoor setting. Guidelines for K-8 schools include the mandate that all choirs, meeting either indoors or outdoors, have singers positioned six feet apart, including choirs that meet before or after school hours.
Lauren Sklar, founder and conductor for the Evanston-based Youth Chorus of the North Shore, has dedicated her adult life to teaching music to kids in kindergarten through eighth grade and isn’t relinquishing her baton just because of COVID-19.
After years of teaching music in both public and private schools, five years ago she founded the Youth Chorus of the North Shore, a nonprofit for kids in kindergarten through eighth grades.
“COVID has changed the way instruction takes place, but the singing goes on,” Sklar said. “People frequently experience comfort from group singing. It tends to make them feel optimistic and more connected to others. Singing with the students is the highlight of my weeks, but safety is primary.” Most of her students are not old enough to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
As the CDC advises, the chorus uses layered mitigation strategies to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Rehearsals in the park, even in winter
Before the pandemic, Sklar used a uniquely suitable rehearsal space, the Reconstructionist Synagogue in south Evanston, and accompanied the chorus to the library, various retirement homes and other venues for community performances.
During the pandemic, however, protocols had to be altered, and the chorus has been divided into “cohort groups” of the same five to 10 students who always rehearse together.
Rehearsals are outside, even in winter months (sometimes in singers’ backyards) and students are always masked. Social distancing is taken seriously, as is the amount of time the singing sessions last. In an abundance of caution, the singers are instructed to always face forward when singing.
“Lovelace Park is northwest Evanston has been a perfect outdoor location for our weekly rehearsals,” Sklar said. “There’s a lot of space to move around, and the covered picnic pavilions are a bit of protection from the weather. Other benefits are the free parking, playgrounds and running-around space for parents with young children. That they can pass the time in the park while the older siblings are singing is good. And singing via Zoom is not very satisfying.”
Katherine Labbe, an eighth-grader at St. Athanasius in Evanston, is a veteran chorus member. Claire Labbe, Katherine’s mother, has marveled at how talented and creative Sklar has continued to be as a teacher, motivator and nurturer. “Even beginning her sixth year with the chorus and as a teenager, Katherine still loves being part of the chorus and singing,” she said. “She’s enjoyed being on the chorus youth board and playing a bit of a leadership role, and she’s benefitted from the vocal training and the sense of community.”
Seven year-old Emma Pastranas joined the youth chorus a year and a half ago after moving from Seattle to the Chicago area. Joining the chorus eased the challenges of moving to a new school and community as the pandemic was gaining force.
“I saw how much fun she had, even singing outside all bundled up in the cold! And she liked being part of a singing group, a community,” said her mother, Mayja Pastranas.
Despite having to wear a special mask, maintain social distancing, cut short practice sessions and perform recitals on Zoom, Emma thinks it’s all totally worth it for the fun of singing.