School performing arts – Going in-person during the pandemic

By Dorothy Wigmore

“I’m happy for my family. I can go home and feel confident that I’m not bringing anything home to them.” That’s Brian Toth’s take on the protocols behind in-person teaching this year as the band director at East Brunswick High School.

The measures are based on work by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland. Their International Performing Arts Coalition Aerosol Study was funded by U.S., Canadian and European groups, including Arts Education New Jersey. 

Early in the pandemic, the researchers rang alarm bells about the importance of small airborne particles carrying SARS-CoV-2 (aerosols) in transmitting the virus. Outbreaks like a deadly one in a Washington State choir and others linked to musical performances confirmed they were right. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Since unmitigated performing arts settings tended to generate high levels of aerosols, the study was conducted to look at what can be done to mitigate and reduce risk to allow performing arts activities to continue,” explains Bob Morrison, director of the statewide arts education organization, Arts Ed NJ. 

“All of our guidance is based on what we learned through that study,” he adds. “I would further argue that the performing arts has way more research supporting the strategies that we’ve put in place, than just about any other content area.”

Guidance from Arts Ed NJ’s September Forward is in the sidebar.

What’s in the protocols?

The measures for inside activities, updated in July, depend on local transmission rates. The table shows the two sets. 

Recommendations (higher rates)September recommendations (lower rates)
Mask students (with slit face coverings to
play wind and brass instruments)
Mask students except when playing wind and brass instruments
Mask instrumentsMask instruments
Six-foot distanceThree-foot distance
Limit rehearsals to 30 minutesLimit rehearsals to 50 minutes
Go outside, with restrictions
on distancing, etc.
Go outside, without restrictions
(e.g., distancing).

For both higher and lower rates, there must be good ventilation (at least three air changes/hour—others say six), HEPA air filtering units and time between classes. The protocols also include handwashing and cleaning brass spit valves. Face shields and partitions are out; they interfere with ventilation and do little to reduce inhaling aerosols.

Masks should be made of MERV 13 material, or those meeting standards for medical masks (e.g., ASTM F2100), and bell covers of double-layered MERV 13 material. (Flutes and recorders don’t need covers as they don’t generate aerosols.)

East Brunswick High School uses the protocols

Classes in the performing arts—music, dance, theatre and visual arts—have suffered a lot in the pandemic. At East Brunswick High School last year, Toth saw about one-third of his usual number of students in person. 

They followed the study-based protections for higher rates. District-provided bolts of jersey cotton were cut and clipped to cover each instrument bell (see photo). 

Toth was spraying disinfectant on student contact surfaces too. To give the product time to work, he rotated desks, chairs and music stands between classes. Twice a week, others fogged the classroom at night. This year, he’s spraying less, with a new product also containing hypochlorous acid and there’s less fogging. (Fogging is problematic, according to NJEA and New Jersey Work Environment Council/NJ WEC. See the resources.)

“The students have been very adaptable from the get-go,” Toth says. “This year, they’re just glad to play with someone, instead of playing at a computer screen. We’ve had no close contact issues, no transmission in our classroom. There’s good air movement in the room. Would I love to see their faces? Yes, but right now we’re doing everything we can, and the results are there.” 

“I’m proud that they have followed through and made sure we’ve not had any close contact or quarantine issues in our teaching space,” he adds.

“We’ve seen far more implementation [of these measures] than a year ago,” Morrison says. “We know so much more now, and our schools are back to full days.”

“Everything’s important when we’re talking about layered mitigation strategies,” he adds. “The reality is that there is no 100% safe environment.” 

He points to a survey the study group did in the spring. Responses from more than 3,000 schools showed those with protections had very few virus cases. Those without were about 4.5 times more likely to have outbreaks.

Morrison also urges teachers to “ask for appropriately sized air cleaners” and other upgrades from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The application deadline in New Jersey is Nov. 21. 

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” he says. “The investment in and of itself is good practice for any respiratory illness. There are things we’re learning in this process that will hopefully live long beyond the period we get the virus under control.”

What can joint health and safety committees do?

  • Find out if performing arts staff can use the study protocols (e.g., do they have MERV 13 filter materials, effective ventilation and/or HEPA air filtering units)—if they’re missing, go to bat for them.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, and “stress.” She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.