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The state of Vermont released new safety guidelines
on Wednesday for in-person music education in schools. The pandemic-era protocols allow for indoor group practices under specific conditions for the first time since schools reopened in the fall. The move comes after months of advocacy by music educators pushing for the state to sanction indoor group rehearsals.
Among the guidelines are that musicians can play together indoors separated from each other at six-foot intervals. Rehearsal spaces must be equipped to complete three air exchanges per hour and one full exchange between rehearsals, which are limited to 30 minutes with no audiences.
Singers and musicians must wear masks at all times. Woodwind and brass players are permitted to wear masks with a slit for their instrument’s mouthpiece while playing. Those instruments must also be equipped with a bell cover — essentially a cloth mask for the end of the instrument.
Secretary of Education Dan French first announced the guidelines at Gov. Phil Scott's February 12 press conference
after a meeting with educators and health officials earlier that week.
Eric Bushey, leader of the Vermont Music Educators Association
’s pandemic task force, said that the new protocols are based on guidance written in the fall by
the National Association for Music Education and National Federation of State High School Associations. Those organizations based their guidance on the findings of an aerosol study
conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland. Preliminary results from that study have shown that mitigation efforts such as slitted masks and bell covers can reduce the emission of aerosols by 60 to 90 percent.
Bushey, who is the director of instrumental music at Bellows Free Academy
, said in a phone interview on Monday that the VMEA first provided state decision makers with the national guidelines last fall, but the state was hesitant to move forward.
In the press conference, French noted that shortly after state leaders began considering music guidelines last fall, COVID-19 case numbers began to rise again. He explained some of the challenges unique to developing COVID-19 safety guidelines for music rehearsals.
“[Different] instruments function differently, from an aerosol production perspective,” he said. “For example, flutes are much more safe than oboes."
That means some instruments require specific considerations. For example: Trombone players require nine feet of space, rather than six , to allow for the instrument's length.
"The mitigation measures for music are therefore relatively complex," French continued. "The proposed mitigation measures have not changed much, however, from what we considered in the fall, but what has changed is our confidence in the ability of schools to implement these measures with fidelity.”
Bushey and the VMEA organized a webinar on Monday for educators to begin planning how they’d work within the new guidelines.
The Scott administration had previously given school sports including basketball, ice hockey, indoor soccer and volleyball permission to resume
starting on February 12. That decision led to grumbling on social media that sports were being given precedence over music.
“It was difficult for a lot of us to see guidance moving forth for athletics and not for music, knowing what we knew about aerosol spread,” Bushey said. He stressed that he doesn’t want to pit music and sports against each other, and that both are important to students.
Still, Bushey said, “We don’t have a segment in the morning news. We don’t have a section in the paper. So there’s always been a perception that we’ve had to advocate a lot harder for ourselves.”
That advocacy will continue even with new rules in place. Bushey noted that many school music programs have lost students since the pandemic started, and recovery will take time.
“We’ve been hit harder than any other discipline in the state,” Bushey said. “We’re a vulnerable discipline to begin with, and now we’re going to need to rebuild.”
But Bushey said other students have shown serious dedication to their music, and music teachers around the state have responded with creativity.
During one outdoor practice last fall, Bushey recalled, he was wearing a hat and didn’t notice that it had started raining until he saw water pooling on his music stand. None of his students mentioned it.
“It's like, they didn't even want me to notice that it was raining,” Bushey said. “Nobody said a word about how wet they were getting. Because they were just so happy to be outdoors playing music.”