Over the past 18 months, the NFHS performing arts department has partnered with scientists and researchers, national leaders in health and education and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations to help keep scholastic performing arts alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of those ongoing efforts, two items were recently added to the NFHS Aerosol Study Page to assist schools in navigating the COVID-related concerns ahead in 2021-22.
The primary new addition is “A Conversation on Mitigations for Fall 2021,” a comprehensive, 36-minute, informational video featuring Dr. James Weaver, NFHS Director of Performing Arts and Sports, and Dr. Mark Spede, College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) President and Clemson University director of bands, with Bob Morrison, director of Arts Ed New Jersey, serving as moderator.
Divided into 10 sections, Weaver and Spede address a variety of topics in the video including the differences in state and local health recommendations, existing mitigation strategies and risk assessment, aerosol particles and air change rate, as well as specialized guidance for holding in-person speech, debate, theatre and music events.
In addition to revisiting masking, distance, timing, hygiene and air quality – the five mitigation strategies developed from the performing arts aerosol study co-chaired by Weaver and Spede – Weaver reported on statistics from a year-end survey that indicated that those strategies were highly effective in 2020-21.
“We did an analysis of 3,000 schools in April and May with returned results in June,” Weaver said. “And of those 3,000 schools, we had 1,641 that self-identified a COVID case within their music programs. We used music because it’s an easier group to track because they meet every day. And of those 1,641 schools that had a COVID-positive student in their programs, only eight of them were reported as a “spread” inside the program, and only one was more than a one-to-one transmission.”
“And with those schools that identified a one-to-one transmission, there wasn’t professional contact tracing done,” added Spede. “We included them and assumed that it happened in the music classroom. It could have easily happened in the cafeteria, after school, wherever the students had been together unmasked. So, with all that said, the risk of transmitting COVID in a (music) classroom this past year was 1-in-2 million for a 30-minute rehearsal period – that’s extremely low.”
Weaver also shared that schools that didn’t employ the mitigations were almost five times more likely to encounter a COVID-related setback, a statement that was amplified in the following video segment on aerosol particle size and distribution. Weaver and Spede both noted that while the delta variant of the virus appears more dangerous in terms of symptom severity and transmission rate, its particles are the same size as previous variants, meaning mitigation protocols – especially masking students and instruments – can still be effective in preventing infection.
In a later section focused on air change rate, CADR-certified HEPA air cleaners are advised for cleaning and cycling air in the classroom. For the sake of mitigation, a minimum air change rate of three changes per hour can be easily achieved with a HEPA cleaner that is properly sized for the room and can be enhanced by opening windows and doors to create cross-ventilation. For teachers who do not have ample time for a complete air change between music classes, implementing activities that limit aerosol emissions during the early part of a class period can help the air filtering process. Using face shields and partitions in the classroom is not recommended, as shields provide minimal protection from aerosols and partitions create “boxes” and “dead zones” within the room that are not conducive to proper air flow.
Spede and Weaver close the video with some general guidance activity leaders can use to make the most of their performing arts opportunities in the 2021-22 school year. For as long as weather permits, teachers and coaches are encouraged to hold their classes and meetings outdoors to take advantage of the open-air environment and natural sunlight.
Weaver implores viewers to understand their resources and unique challenges before attempting to hold activities in the classroom and stresses the importance of applying and securing Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding. ESSER funds can be especially helpful for educators who require air filters, extra instruments, or other items to help prevent their activities from being canceled in areas with restrictive COVID policies. More information on ESSER funding can be found on the NFHS.org website. From the home page, click on “Music” from the “Activities & Sports” menu and find the “Return to Music Resources – Helping Teachers, Administrators, Students” article in the articles menu. ESSER funding is addressed under the “Phase II” heading approximately one-third of the way down the page.
A new scholarly article co-authored by Weaver, Spede and 11 other contributors – including performing arts aerosol study chief researchers Dr. Jelena Srebric and Dr. Shelly L. Miller – has also been made available on the NFHS website.
The article, titled “Measurements and Simulations of Aerosol Released while Singing and Playing Wind Instruments,” provides a detailed scientific analysis of the study, which began in May 2020 and is slated to be completed in December. In addition to the NFHS, CBDNA and the massive coalition of performing arts organizations assembled at the beginning of the pandemic, generous financial commitments from the National Association of Music Merchants and the D’Addario Foundation helped make the study possible.
The study was designed to assess the actual risk of singing and playing wind instruments indoors and outdoors and sought to develop mitigative steps for avoiding the activities’ most dangerous elements.
Complete with more than 20 pictures and diagrams, as well as additional data tables, the article illustrates how research teams used flow visualization, aerosol and carbon dioxide plume measurements and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling to understand the potential spread of COVID-19 through various activities and musical instruments. Along with aerosols emitted from singers, the study analyzed the unique plumes generated by a clarinet, French horn, flute, oboe, saxophone and trumpet, and compared the differences in said plumes from masked and unmasked sources.
“We were very fortunate to be able to work with such wonderful scientists that were dedicated to finding proven ways for students to return to performing arts activities in a way that reduces their risks from COVID-19,” said Weaver. “With these mitigations recommendations, students around the country were able to return to the activities that they love and enjoy and provide a community for so many.”
To view full versions of the video and the scholarly article and see in-depth analysis, study results and mitigation strategies specific to speech, debate, music and theatre, click here.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.