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How Hall, Gainesville school systems are holding band, chorus amid COVID-19
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The Cherokee Bluff High School band performs at the corner of the football stadium Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, during the school's first football game of the season with Johnson High. - photo by Scott Rogers

The sound of music has continued to flow through the halls of Hall County and Gainesville schools.  

Local school districts opted to allow high school bands and choruses to continue practicing and bands to play at football games, though all music programs have taken measures to address risks of COVID-19 transmission.  

University research suggests both singing and playing wind instruments create large amounts of aerosol particles capable of transmitting COVID-19. High school band directors say a Colorado State University study has provided a guide for offering music classes amid the pandemic.   

Marching orders 

High school bands have always been a staple of the Friday night high school football experience, and the 2020 season has been no exception. 

Amid mask mandates and limits on crowds in the stands, marching bands have kept the contests lively, blaring school fight songs after big plays and providing halftime entertainment for spectators.  

Band directors at Gainesville and Hall County high schools say they are keeping a close watch on the science and adjusting band instruction accordingly.  

“Colorado State, which has this huge research lab, they did this study on reducing bioaerosol emissions and exposures in the performing arts,” said Craig Cantrell, band director at Cherokee Bluff High School. "They kind of gave us a road map for a safe return from COVID.” 

The study, titled “Reducing Bioaerosol Emissions and Exposures in Performing Arts: a Scientific Roadmap for a Safe Return from COVID-19,” was funded by a number of national performing arts organizations, including the National Band Association and the American Choral Directors Association. Its purpose was to gauge the level of aerosol emissions created from playing instruments, as well as singing, and provide guidelines for musicians around the world to continue performing.  

A University of Iowa research paper, written this summer by a pair of doctors working at the school’s hospital, suggested that while the exact level of aerosol production wind instruments create may not be known, “there are several indications that it might exceed background risk of COVID-19 transmission.” 

“Short of complete isolation (I.e., playing and teaching from home), risk mitigation strategies are not likely to reduce this risk to ‘essentially zero’,” Drs. Adam Schwalje and Henry Hoffman wrote in the report. 

Times Talks | With Hall, Gainesville school superintendents

What: Join our journalists for a live conversation with Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield and Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams. We’ll discuss their strategies for educating children amid the coronavirus pandemic, how the school year has gone so far and what they expect in the coming months.

When: Noon Sept. 29

Where: Zoom; register online

Preliminary findings in the Colorado State study found that while many instruments produce high levels of aerosol particles – trumpet, saxophone and bassoon in particular – risk mitigation strategies can significantly reduce that production. 

Both Cantrell and Gainesville High School band director Larry Miller said that study was their main resource in developing a plan for the year. Results provided the band directors with a couple of different options.  

One solution is to simply practice entirely outdoors, which is the route Miller chose for the Gainesville band. As a slide produced from the study simply states: “Outdoors is best." The same slide also recommends keeping at least 6 feet of distance between performers, even when outside “to reduce viral loading and unsuspected transmission.” Miller said distancing has not been an issue, particularly since the band will only be playing at football games this year and will not be participating in any competitions – which require tighter marching formations. 

“What we’ll be doing at football games is just spread out,” he said. “We take up basically the whole field, stand still and play. We move into place, move out of place, but really that’s about it.” 

When they aren’t performing on the field, Gainesville band members will be in the stands, but staggered so no one is standing directly in front of or behind anyone else. Miller said Gainesville band members will be about 12 to 14 feet apart from one another.  

The Gainesville band will also be using “bell coverings,” according to Miller, which are porous sheets of material that cover the ends of brass instruments and prevent aerosol droplets from shooting into the air. The Colorado State study confirmed that playing with the coverings “reduces source dispersion,” making band activities safer. 

“It’s going to catch a large amount of moisture droplets,” Miller said. “It’s the same concept as us all wearing masks now.” 

When outdoor rehearsal is not possible, Miller said the band is going to focus more on fundamentals of music and individual development.  

In Hall County, bands will be participating in more indoor activity, but Cantrell said all band practices would follow the guidelines laid out in the Colorado State study. To safely perform indoors, the study recommends regular hand washing and sanitizing of indoor areas, bell coverings on instruments, physical distancing of at least 6 feet and minimizing playing to 30 minutes at a time. Compliance with these measures begins as soon as Hall County band students arrive at the band room for class.  

“As they come in, I'm meeting them at the door with hand sanitizer,” Cantrell said. “So, before they can even walk in the room, I make them use hand sanitizer. And they’re not touching it. I'm touching the hand sanitizer, so it’s touchless.” 

He said he starts every class with a lesson in musical theory, or “the grammar of music,” before even getting the instruments out. He’s even added some lessons in the history of music.  

“Normally, we’re rushing to get a Friday performance ready or a spring concert happening,” he said. “We can kind of slow down now and just talk about the inner workings of music.” 

The last 30 minutes of class are spent playing, with all students staying at least 6 feet apart from one another. During a normal year, Cantrell said band class would comprise the entire band – around 60 students at Cherokee Bluff – but this year it’s been split into two groups of 30 to allow band members to spread out.  

He said each Hall County school has adjusted band class sizes based on the size of band rooms and the number of students that can fit while still social distancing. Students are still required to keep their face masks on in band class when not playing their instruments.  

After class, Cantrell and his students sanitize the band room thoroughly, wiping down every surface to make things safe for the next class to come in.  

“You could probably eat your lunch off my floor now in the band room,” he said. 

When rehearsing for games with the full group, Cantrell said the band practices either outside or in the cafeteria or gym, where students can stay at least 6 feet away from one another. During football games, band members are stationed behind the end zone, keeping them distanced from players and spectators.  

Cantrell said while no live performances have been planned, he’s hoping to at least put out recorded video performances on YouTube so students and their parents can see the band’s progress.  

Masked singers 

New safety regulations also apply to chorus programs in Hall County and Gainesville school systems.  

The Colorado State study referenced by the band directors found that well-fitting masks can reduce vocal emissions by “90% or more,” so both school districts are requiring chorus students to wear masks, even while singing. Chorus members will also be kept 6 feet apart from each other at all times. 

“It’s difficult to have the kids spread so far apart, and then their sound is muffled with the mask,” said Teresa Williams, choral director at Gainesville High School. “But we want to do what we can to keep them safe.” 

Despite the difficulty of singing with a mask on, Williams said she has not received any complaints from students about having to follow the new precautions.  

Lisa Bassett, choral director at Chestatee High School, has also been following the distance and mask guidelines, emphasizing the importance of well-fitting masks that “almost leaves a mark on the student’s face when they take it off.” She said she’s urged her students to look on the positive side of having to sing while wearing a mask.  

“I kind of told them, as soon as we can take the masks off, whenever that is, we’re going to have incredible breath support with our breathing, because we are having to do so much more with less,” she said. “We’re trying to kind of put a positive spin on everything.” 

Bassett said Hall County choirs are also limiting indoor singing to 30 minutes at a time and will be teaching musical theory lessons during down time. The Chestatee choral program has even purchased two air filters to keep air in the chorus room as clean as possible, but Bassett said due to cost not every Hall County chorus has air filters. 

Adjustments for younger students 

The school districts have also altered music curriculums at the elementary and middle school levels.  

Hall County elementary and middle schools are in the process of installing plexiglass shields in front of pianos so music teachers can play and sing without the risk of aerosol droplets contacting students, according to Stan Lewis, spokesman for the Hall County School District. Lewis also wrote via email that when singing, younger students would be split into groups of one to four, with social distancing and mask wearing still being observed.  

The Gainesville system went as far as to prevent singing in elementary music classes, but Mundy Mill Academy music teacher Julia Hamilton said she’s still found creative ways to keep students engaged in music.  

“Instead of singing, we’re doing rap,” she said. “And so, in learning to do rap, we’re learning to read rhythms and we’re focusing on literacy.” 

Fifth grade students are still learning to play the recorder like during a normal year, according to Hamilton, but they are practicing exclusively outdoors  

Despite the potential viral spread and new rules, leadership for both districts said cutting band, chorus and music classes was never considered during the planning process.  

“The district believes in the value of the arts and in developing well-rounded individuals,” Lewis wrote regarding Hall County’s reasoning for keeping music programs going. “We took the same approach we took to all classroom instruction: we knew we had to find a way to provide these opportunities to our students in a safe and responsible manner so that they continue to grow and learn.” 

"We knew we would have to change the scale and put in more precautions, but we don’t want it to eliminate some of our best programs, and the arts are one of our best programs,” Gainesville  Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “We wanted to ensure that our students still have the opportunity to develop so that two or three years from now, we’re not wondering what happened.” 

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