As Connecticut Schools Prepare for Fall Classes, Officials Work to Prevent Loss of Music Instruction and Athletics

Within the next three weeks, every public school district in Connecticut will be starting classes. And every district, except New Haven, will be offering at least some in-person education. But whether those classes include music instruction remains uncertain.

“When the reopen advisory committee began they were talking about removing some of the pieces of curriculum that could not possibly be delivered safely, like music, where there is a lot of potential for exposure,” said State Sen. Eric Bethel, R-Watertown, ranking member on Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee. “All of us on the Education Committee agreed this is something we had to protect. We can’t simply say it’s not safe, don’t do it.”

Berthel said he and the other ranking members on the committee were concerned that if districts removed music education from the curriculum that it might never return, even once the COVID-19 pandemic was over. On May 13, he released a statement encouraging members of the public to contact the reopen advisory committee emphasizing the importance of music education as a component of public education.

“Once you cut something, they don’t come back easily,” he said. “Let’s figure out a way to do it and keep those parts of the curriculum in play.”

Despite initial concerns, the Connecticut Department of Education and the State Board of Education, together with the reopen advisory committee, agreed with Berthel that including music instruction in some way was essential for students.

“The Connecticut State Board of Education believes that arts learning should occur through education focused on the whole child in order to promote artistically literate citizens well equipped with the creativity, communication, and critical thinking skills needed to live rich, meaningful lives…The CSDE COVID Music Guidance has been designed with equity at the center; providing an equitable learning environment for all students returning to school this fall. Furthermore, the guidance allows for reversibility and flexibility. By moving forward with a decision that has reversibility and flexibility, we can take action and provide Arts programming rather than delay.”

According to guidelines released on August 14, all students in music classes — which often include singing, playing instruments and sitting in close quarters with many other students – must wear a mask and maintain a six-foot physical distance at all times.

Instead of the usual format of 50 or more students sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing music stands and practicing for an hour-long class period, the state is recommending smaller class sizes, maintaining cohorting in line with other classes, outdoor performances when possible, no more than 30 minutes of singing or playing instruments indoors, physical barriers between singers and nylon or cloth bell coverings for instruments.

With the delay in official guidance, most districts are still determining what their music education offerings will look like on the first day of school.

“We are finalizing our plans now and using the state’s guidance as our tool for moving forward,” said Jan Perruccio, superintendent of Old Saybrook Public Schools. “There will be [music education], but the format is unclear.”

The National Association for Music Education, which has provided guidance for the state policy, recommends an emphasis on other aspects of music apart from performance.

“Music education encompasses more than just musical performance … face to face music education may focus on the other musical processes – responding, creating and connecting. Students can continue to work on musical performance skills at home.”  

Before allowing typical performance and in-school practice to begin, the association and the state recommend districts wait for a study on the spread of COVID-19 through aerosols produced while singing or playing an instrument to be completed. According to the state, the study should be released by the end of August.

Some districts are planning to restrict all playing of instruments and singing to at-home practice time. Others, will be holding typical band or chorus classes in larger spaces such as the gymnasium or cafeteria if an up-to-date ventilation system is available. For kindergarten through eighth grade music instruction, few if any recorders will be used. Instead, school districts are planning to teach with percussion instruments.

“Music is an important part of providing a well-rounded education in our public schools beyond math, science and English,” Berthel said. “Not everyone is an athlete, not everyone’s a musician, not everyone’s an academic, we need to have all options available for kids.”

And as of Friday, it’s not just the musically-inclined who are waiting to hear what school reopening will bring in the fall.

Although the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference was planning for all fall sports to begin pre-season practices between August 15 and August 24, on Friday they announced the start of fall sports would be postponed pending a meeting with the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

“Based on DPH recommendations, the board took the action to pause all in-person interscholastic fall sport activity including conditioning programs which are already underway until Monday, August 24.  Coaches are encouraged to promote virtual safe contact and conditioning with their athletes during the pause so as to not lose the conditioning gains and socialization benefits made during the summer,” according to a statement released by the Athletic Conference on August 14.

The announcement came after the Department of Public Health released recommendations against returning to football and volleyball this fall and postponing pre-season practices until two weeks after the start of the academic school year.

Latest from Julia Werth