By Dawn Hiltner and Phillip Pallitto

As school districts grapple with the challenges of modified school schedules because of the coronavirus pandemic, arts education is too often falling by the wayside.

Some school districts are assigning arts educators to assist with general education instruction or to serve as hall monitors. While many arts educators are happy to help their students and colleagues, they are not necessarily certified to teach content outside their arts subject areas. The time arts educators are assigned outside the scope of their certificates could impinge on seniority rights and teacher tenure, placing them in an untenable situation, particularly if they are not trained in content-specific programs and expectations.

One of the strengths of New Jersey’s schools, and the reason they consistently rank among the best in the country, is our state’s commitment to robust, inclusive curricula. Through the pandemic, some districts have eliminated or minimized arts education to meet social distancing requirements or because they believe music and arts classes are unsafe or cannot be taught virtually.

Eliminating or minimizing arts education is not only problematic from an educational and mental health point of view, it can also cause the school district to become out of compliance with student learning standards. The New Jersey Student Learning Standards provide broad guidance on what curricula should cover and what students should learn in the core areas—including visual and performing arts. Those standards have not been waived and are still required even if a school day is abbreviated or lessons are conducted virtually.

In times of uncertainty, the arts provide students with a therapeutic means of expressing their fears, anxiety and grief. The psychological benefits of arts education are essential for students’ social-emotional well-being. For many students, the arts are what excite them about school, what motivates them to attend, and what allows them to explore the world around them.

The arts also play a vital role in social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL helps students learn self-awareness, social awareness, and decision-making skills. The arts provide a more authentic outlet for students to express themselves and explore their emotions in a constructive, emotional way. Arts classes, either in-person or online, can provide a safe space for our students to express their fears and anxiety around this pandemic without judgment.

Advocating for arts education

So how do arts educators best advocate for themselves and their students in this uncertain environment? The most direct recommendation is home-grown advocacy for the arts with the support of content-area teaching colleagues. Arts education is just as valuable to content area and special education teachers. By working together, we can integrate the arts into the curriculum and give our students a more robust experience.

Teaching arts related to and alongside the content areas during scheduled classes can also help alleviate the pressure on classroom teachers who are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of virtual instruction.

For a unit on the Holocaust, for example, my students read The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Night by Ellie Wiesel. We watched “The Sound of Music,” which integrated the arts and enabled us to ease into a discussion of the ways non-Jewish children were affected by the Holocaust. The students wrote poetry to express how they were feeling and created artwork to represent the different points of view children experienced during the Holocaust.

Additionally, the biggest celebration of students’ cultures is through arts. Culturally responsive teaching is important for our students’ growth, and an excellent tool to build respect and rapport with students. Too often they are not exposed to the arts. We look at all the district initiatives and curricula and embrace and infuse culturally responsive pedagogy, as researched, for example, by Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

School districts that are short on space or time could arrange for arts educators to teach their content areas across multigrade classes, if that can be accomplished safely under current restrictions. The district could also use open areas such as outdoor spaces, cafeterias, or gymnasiums so that arts teachers could continue to conduct music or arts classes in rooms without walls.

Online arts instruction gives teachers the opportunity to engage students in a multitude of ways. Arts education can explore themes that run through visual arts, music, and literature. Students can collaborate online to produce virtual concerts, theatrical productions, and art shows.

Risk mitigation strategies for instrumental and vocal music

For those districts with in-person or hybrid plans, it’s also important to use scientific findings when planning instrumental and vocal music classes. While there have been a few news stories questioning the safety of playing wind instruments and singing, information from a major study out of the University of Colorado addresses these issues.

The study examined aerosol rates produced by wind instrumentalists, vocalists, and even actors, and best practices for reducing infection risk. By following some simple mitigation strategies both instrumental and vocal music may be scheduled for students’ participation.

The key points include:

      Masks – Teachers and students (including vocalists and actors) should wear properly fitting masks at all times. The bells of instruments should also be fitted with masks. Instrumentalists should have masks with a small opening to accommodate the mouth piece.

      Social Distancing – Students maintain social distance based on CDC guidelines (6 feet).

      Proper Hygiene – Proper hand-washing, cleaning of instruments and facilities should be followed.

      Time – Indoor rehearsals should not exceed 30 minutes with 15 minutes between the use of the same room (for proper air exchange).

      Ventilation – Rooms should be properly ventilated to have an air change rate of 3 or greater for indoor rehearsals. Outdoor rehearsal is encouraged when possible.

To follow the study, visit bit.ly/artsedcovid.

As New Jersey’s public schools continue another school year under the pandemic, the safety of our students and staff must be paramount. That being said, students still deserve a comprehensive, high quality school experience that includes arts education. In times of stress and uncertainty, students need a safe, constructive outlet for expression and social emotional health. Arts education is the answer.

Dawn Hiltner is an associate director in the NJEA Communications Division. She can be reached at dhiltner@njea.org.

Phillip Pallitto is the 2019-20 Atlantic County Teacher of the Year. An arts integration specialist and middle school English language arts teacher in Somers Point, Pallitto has directed nearly 30 school plays and musicals in the district. He can be reached at philsaddress@msn.com.

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