At a recent online meeting of the B.C. Music Educators’ Association, teachers were talking about spit – specifically, the drool that collects in the valves of some instruments, such as trumpets, and that players typically empty onto a cloth or the floor.
With a droplet-spread pandemic on their minds, the educators talked about how spit valves should be managed. Would paper towels work to collect the moisture? What about puppy pads? Aren’t those things expensive?
Buy in bulk and cut them into pieces, advised Janet Wade, a music teacher in Abbotsford, B.C., who helped write a how-to manual for teaching music during a pandemic.
“It’s really vital that the person who used it puts it in the garbage and washes their hands right away,” she said during the Aug. 20 meeting, which is posted on the BCMEA website. The BCMEA is a subgroup of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).
Similar practical tips – ranging from how to clean instruments to best practices for singing (outdoors is best; break into smaller groups, keep two metres apart) – are found throughout “Guidance for Music Classes in British Columbia during COVID-19″. The document, spearheaded by Ms. Wade and Christin Reardon MacLellan, president of the Coalition for Music Education in B.C., a non-profit group that supports school music programs, aims to answer teachers’ questions and respond to public-health directives.
The document is also part advocacy, based on the notion that music programs should be in place when B.C. students return to school next week. Other jurisdictions, including Ontario, have put some music activities on hold, in line with July guidance from Toronto’s SickKids Hospital, which cites transmission risks from activities such as choir practice. Alberta’s current back-to-school guidance says band classes may be considered in spaces that allow for physical distancing, such as a gymnasium or outside, but that in-person singing should be postponed.
At this point, B.C.’s back-to-school plan allows for band and choir with preventive measures.
B.C.’s blueprint – which involves learning groups, stepped-up cleaning and limited use of masks – is controversial. The BCTF, which represents about 45,000 public-school teachers, has called on the province to delay reopening schools and come up with a revised plan that would use recently announced federal funds to reduce class sizes.
Two B.C. men, both fathers of school-aged children, in August filed a lawsuit alleging that the province is “conducting a potentially deadly science experiment in which the students and parents are guinea pigs.” Parents have pushed for more online learning options.
Ms. Wade and Ms. Reardon MacLellan, meanwhile, spent the past few months focused on what they could do to make music classes safer, should they proceed.
That effort was fuelled by the belief that music is important to students’ emotional and mental health even, and perhaps especially, during a pandemic.
“We know that music education is important to developing the whole learner, the whole child,” said Ms. Reardon MacLellan in a recent interview. She is also the director of education and community programs for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“Taking that away from students – especially at a time like this, when they need creativity and support and stimulating subject matter, is so backwards. Especially when we’ve found that, so often during these times, music is what pulls us together and gets us through.”
They focused on details, including spacing of students, cleaning instruments and other precautions, such as bell covers – essentially, masks for instruments.
They held several online town halls. Teachers were anxious.
“There’s a lot of trepidation, naturally. Because we are all opening up our bubbles,” said Mandart Chan, president of the BCMEA.
In many schools, there may be only one music teacher, meaning those teachers will be working with most or all of the students in a school rather than a smaller learning group, he added.
“Their learning group is actually going to grow to the entire population of the school.” His own precautionary plans, he said, include masks, physical distancing and hand-washing.
Mr. Chan, who teaches at Belmont Secondary School near Victoria, last year began experimenting with more space between players, based on advice from other musicians that doing so would result in richer, more resonant sound. Before class, he would put chairs exactly where he wanted them, breaking up the familiar shoulder-to-shoulder rows into something more spacious. Now, that musical hunch has a public-health rationale.
Both the Ministry of Education and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which reviewed the guidance document, were receptive to the notion that music should be part of the restart plan, Ms. Wade said.
“B.C. is so incredibly lucky because not every province is allowing music in schools as they’re returning.
“The fact that the government understands how important it is to kids, and to their emotional and social well-being – I’m grateful that Christin and I were able to play a small part in that,” she said.
Grace Hu, who is going into Grade 10 at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, is keen to play music with her fellow students but also worries that she or her classmates or teachers could become ill with the virus. She chose Lord Byng for its music offerings through the Byng Arts Mini School, and plays piano and percussion in several groups.
She’s prepared for more online performance and instruction if case numbers increase and officials change the restart plan, although she says those methods can’t fully replace the experience of learning and playing music with others in real time.
“We miss in-class instruction and our friends and seeing each other in the halls every day,” Ms. Hu said. “But at the same time … we are a bit worried about passing on COVID or getting it ourselves. So there’s sort of that dilemma.”
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