Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Travis Coakley, the marching band director at Biloxi High School in Mississippi.
For Penelope Cruz, the first disappointment was the canceled Carnegie Hall performance.
The second came on Friday, March 13th.
On that day, as more schools shut down nationwide, Cruz, who directs the choir at White Plains High School in New York, delivered a prescient warning. It came a day after her students learned that Carnegie Hall had canceled their scheduled performance and all others for the month of March as it shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“One of my students said to me, ‘Do you remember that last Friday and you said to us, ‘This may be the last time we sing in this room together for this year?’ We all thought you were kind of crazy,’” Cruz recalled. “I kind of said it not to be doomsday about it, but we needed to be emotionally prepared.”
Not much has changed in the time since. Carnegie Hall is still shut down, Cruz is still separated from her students, and the White Plains school district, where Cruz teaches, will begin the school year in September with all-remote learning for at least the first week.
In the span of several months, group singing and musical performances and rehearsals, once a source of glee for millions of students, are now potential disease incubators—especially if those performances are conducted indoors.
Science has established a clear link between the spread of particles when people speak, sing, and play instruments by mouth and coronavirus infection.
Choirs have been tied to several coronavirus outbreaks around the world, and marching band competitions have been shut down in dozens of states.
At Biloxi High in southern Mississippi, all 240 members of the school marching band undergo temperature checks with digital thermometers and answer a series of coronavirus screening questions before practice each day. During drills, students and staff must remain six feet apart.
“These are the hoops we’re trying to jump through to make this possible,” said Travis Coakley, the school marching band director. “My philosophy the whole time has been, if we can find a way to do this safely, we have to try.”
The University of Colorado and the University of Maryland are leading a six-month study that explores how singers and musicians transmit aerosol particles. The research is funded by organizations trying to determine how in-person performances and practices can take place safely in person amid a global pandemic.
Preliminary findings, published in July, revealed that singing and the playing of brass and wind instrument generate respiratory aerosols at high rates, but that requiring participants to wear masks and using bell covers for instruments reduces the range of emissions.
A second round of research released this month reinforced the findings that, when indoors, the risk of coronavirus infection spikes if someone is exposed to viral particles for more than 30 minutes.
The researchers, who have released preliminary results to help educators understand how they can safely resume instruction in classrooms, band rooms, and rehearsal spaces, expect to complete their work in December.
In March, a two-and-a-half-hour-long church choir practice in Mount Vernon, Wash., was one of the first events that shed light on the dangers of mass gatherings and aerosol spread.
In the week after the practice, three people were hospitalized and two eventually died; 52 of the 61 attendees became ill, with 32 confirmed to have COVID-19. The other 20 had symptoms consistent with the virus. Investigators with the Skagit County Health Department determined that only one person at the practice had symptoms a few days prior. Doctors later confirmed that person had COVID-19.
That reality has made teachers in places such as New York’s Westchester County, hard hit by the pandemic in the spring and summer, leery about in-person practices and performances.
Fear of COVID-19 transmission is widespread among school band programs, too. In a fall where many states will not have high school football, there also will not be marching band performances at halftime or anytime in many places: More than 20 states have already canceled fall marching band competitions, including some that were scheduled as far out as November.
That does not mean the music has stopped everywhere.
Earlier in the summer, positive COVID-19 tests shut down band activities in places such as Michigan and Mississippi. But, in recent weeks, high school bands have played on in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas after band students tested positive for COVID-19 while participating in summer camps.
To prevent the spread of coronavirus, researchers recommend rehearsing and performing outdoors with social distancing when possible.
Hosting band and choir rehearsals outdoors may gain traction because many school districts cannot guarantee that their schools have proper ventilation.
In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that found more than 40 percent of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in at least half their schools to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In Olathe, Kan., the schools will resume with online learning for middle and high school students. In Johnson County, where the district is located, the number of positive cases and the percentage of positive cases are on the rise.
Because of the delay, Gretchen Harrison, the choir director at the district’s Frontier Trail Middle School, will have to wait a bit longer to hear students in person.
“I had little tenors or barely tenors who are going to come back with baritone voices and I’m going to have soprano voices that are becoming more adult in their sound,” Harrison said. “I can hardly stand the wait.”
Harrison spent much of her summer as part of a team developing a return-to-school guide for the American School Band Directors Association with advice for teaching in face-to-face, remote, and hybrid learning models and the understanding that new research could upend their recommendations.
Performing arts teachers in her district are already exploring how to use videos to host virtual concerts.
“We’re really going to have more opportunities as long as people can get out of the idea that things have to be like they’ve always been,” Harrison said. “We can do this, and the kids need us to do this.”
Fearing that some schools would shut down their band programs to cut costs, the High School Band Director’s National Association also compiled guidelines for teachers resuming instruction and practices.
“Children need these outlets for expression and creativity,” said Oliver Boone, the executive director of the association and a former middle and high school band director. “An appreciation of music and the fine arts is a vital component of a well-rounded education.”
More schools are also exploring the possibility of virtual competitions, said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The organization, which determines the rules of competition for most high school sports and activities, is among the groups backing the aerosol study.
At Biloxi High, Coakley splits his school-day band classes in two, and prohibits sharing of equipment, instruments, and sheet music. All schools in the state are required to complete weekly surveys on confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Ensuring student health is paramount. But Coakley has another reason to develop precautions that allow his students to continue practicing and hopefully, at some point, performing. The Biloxi, Miss., schools has plans to unveil a $15 million performing arts center this fall—and Coakley would like to see students perform there sooner than later.
“We can separate the students enough to try to make this work,” Coakley said. “But at what point can we actually start to plan a concert? What does that look like? So, we’re rehearsing for a performance that we’re not sure where or when or how it will happen.”
Those performances may have to wait. At least 15 Biloxi High students have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the school to transition to distance learning after weeks of in-person instruction.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as Will Coronavirus Silence School Bands and Choirs?