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It all started with a viral photo. Anger, fear, confusion, and hopelessness swirled when Georgia high school sophomore Hannah Watters posted a picture of a crammed school hallway in early August, demonstrating just how hard it is to social distance in an in-person school environment.

The photo was from North Paulding High School, which opened on August 3. Unsurprisingly, the school closed again shortly thereafter when six students and three faculty members tested positive for COVID-19.

It set the tone for the fall semester, as teachers across the country braced to start the new school year. The spring had been enough of a whirlwind – what would the new year bring in such an uncertain and ever-changing situation?

Even halfway through the fall, learning models are still up for debate and being changed as we learn more about how COVID-19 spreads and affects different populations. Simply put, even after months of deliberation and experimentation with different learning models and techniques, there still is no “magic solution” for teaching during COVID-19. There likely won’t be one. And for music and arts educators, the complications of effective teaching are amplified.

As the fall semester brings changes and challenges, SBO checked in with teachers from across the country to see how both their states and school districts were approaching education methods, and learned what’s working (and what clearly isn’t cutting it).

Massachusetts

Over at Higgins Middle School in Peabody, Massachusetts, the school year began with a strict plan in place to help students better adjust to learning during a pandemic. Students were given the option to learn entirely from home, or to learn using a hybrid model of at-home and in-school learning. This new model for the fall semester comes coupled with Massachusetts’ requirements for schools reopening, which includes basic social distancing, frequent disinfection of classrooms and common areas, and the mandate that masks must be worn indoors at all times.

Teachers like Chris Stone, who has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade theater and chorus at Higgins for six years, face even more restrictions, by order of the state. Indoor singing and musical theater are prohibited, and both activities are only permitted outside when students remain 10 feet apart, and 25 feet away from the audience.

“Our school is a very large middle school, with over 1400 students and 100 staff members,” Stone explains. “Our students and parents were surveyed over the summer in regards to comfort level in returning to schools. The results have guided our reopening policy: students are allowed to be full-time remote if they choose (this is roughly 15 percent of our population). The remaining 1300ish kids are divided into two cohorts: cohort A and cohort B. Cohort A attends school on Monday and Thursday, Cohort B on Tuesday and Friday; Wednesday is fully remote. When a cohort is not in school, they are learning remotely. There are three main entrances to our school, and students have specific entrances they can use to enter and exit the building to reduce traffic and crowding. Class sizes are capped at 14 to ensure social distancing; desks and student workspaces are six feet apart at all times. Teachers have been supplied with ample sanitizer for hands, shared materials and any high contact areas in their classroom.”

Stone prepared for a challenge in his classes from the get-go in early September, knowing the difficulties he and his students would face in the new school year.

“They [classes] will be unlike anything we have ever done before,” he explained in September. “I teach singing and acting...neither of which can happen collaboratively. I will not be able to accomplish what I used to accomplish in class. We have to get really creative, and basically reinvent the wheel. We have all had to improve our ‘remote learning’ game, receiving trainings on tools, games, etc. that work online. We will be responsible for students that we never actually meet, and that’s never been thought of before. It’s completely different. . . There is a robust performing arts department [at the school] which essentially cannot function, at least in its old capacity.”

Stone’s colleague, Mike Giannopolo, teaches instrumental music and band at Higgins, and has been there for 16 years. There’s an extra layer of complication for Giannopolo’s class this fall; as part of a safety procedure, students must travel between classes in self-contained “pods” together, as to “mitigate potential exposure of the virus to larger numbers of students.” It’s a clever tactic for hindering any potential spread of COVID-19, but it means that Giannopolo can’t teach in person at all.

“Because my class is an elective class, it will not work with students coming to me from different pods,” he explains. “As such, all instrumental music instruction will be delivered remotely, with me teaching from my classroom this year. This is a major change in that there will be no way for me to hear students perform as a group, large or small. While there are definite limitations, I will do my best to deliver the most effective instruction possible. With these obstacles, I may not accomplish everything that I want to, but I am glad that I’ll at least be able to offer something.”

Because of his unique situation, Giannopolo says that he feels generally safe, but he doesn’t feel that it’s wise for students to return to school from remote instruction so soon.

“I will say that masks, physically distancing, and remote meetings have made the first few weeks of teacher professional development feel safe,” he adds. “The recent decision to teach remotely from my classroom certainly helps with this. My answer would surely be different if I were teaching students to play wind instruments live and in person. Like many colleagues, I do not believe it is safe for students to return to school at this point. I feel at this point, that all instruction should remain remote, even given the inherent limitations.”

As of mid-October, Stone shared that there had been three cases of COVID-19 in the school, which were confirmed earlier that month. No additional cases spread to other students or faculty after those three.

“I attribute that to our strict masking, social distancing, and cohort learning measures,” Stone says. “Everything else seems to be holding up!”

Reflecting on safety, he notes: “The CDC and the DESE have set very strict guidelines, and my school in particular has taken personal health and safety very seriously. Of course, I know that I am a healthy 38-year-old man with no preexisting conditions, and my situation doesn’t apply to everyone,” he says. “The administration has had the nearly impossible task of figuring out how to safely keep school running, even if it is in a completely different format. They have to answer to everybody – the 38-year-old males with no underlying health conditions, and the families of kids living with elderly parents, aunts, etc. They have to answer to a large special education population. There are faculty members who they themselves don’t feel safe returning in any capacity – there are no obvious right answers. I can see that everyone is trying their best, though.”

Indiana

In Indiana, there are few restrictions in place for school environments, according to Joey Tartell, professor of trumpet and director of undergraduate studies at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. He’s been working at the Bloomington university since 2003.

While the state has enforced mask-wearing, that’s the only COVID-19 related rule still in place as of October. Business are open again, and the prohibition on gatherings of more than 15 people in Bloomington has already been lifted. “The governor lifted these restrictions, except the mask mandate, weeks ago, and reiterated that just this week,” he explains in mid-October.

Consequently, Indiana University’s policies are trying to make up for the state’s otherwise lax policies, enforcing mandatory testing for all students, contact tracing, and of course, masks must be worn by students and staff at all times. Staff are encouraged to work remotely whenever possible, and all general education courses and courses of over 50 students are now offered online.

In addition, guests are not allowed on campus, and there will be no university-sponsored travel this semester. Freshman, who are required to live in dorms, must live in single rooms instead of doubles.

“Our precautions seem to be working well,” Tartell explains. “The problem is that most students live off campus, and no matter how many precautions are put in place, college students are going to congregate with each other, which can be dangerous. We saw this at IU with the Greek houses at the beginning of the semester.”

Tartell’s classes in particular are one-on-one, meaning he’s allowed to still teach in person, but he must keep ample space between himself and his students at all times.

“My office is big enough for two people, so my teaching is only a little different,” he explains. “I’m used to sitting next to my students. I’ve changed the layout of my office so that I’m across the room, so that I’m never closer than 12 feet from any student. Because we’re able to meet in person, I am able to accomplish what I want, and the students seem happy to meet in person.”

The main complication for his classes is that students who may have been exposed to COVID-19 have to quarantine and learn via Zoom. “There have been some students required to quarantine (they’re notified by the contact tracing people if this becomes necessary). When that has happened, we meet through Zoom, which is not ideal for music lessons.”

Both an undisclosed number of students and staff at Indiana University have contracted COVID-19, but Tartell says that he still feels comfortable teaching in-person there. “I do feel safe,” he notes. “I think IU, once the decision was made to open for the Fall semester, has done a very good job at making campus as safe as possible.”

Of course, performances (or, rather, a lack thereof) and working with large ensembles present the greatest challenge of all. In-person restrictions have reduced many of the school’s music groups to move online to forums – which, while informative, and certainly better than nothing, are no substitute for the real experience of music-making together.

“With the limit on the number of people that can meet, and the restrictions on number of people allowed in rooms at any one time, our large ensembles- band, orchestra, and choirs- can’t meet,” he explains. “We are running online forums for them, which are valuable and educational, but not the same as playing in an ensemble. I wish we could offer the students more performing opportunities, but I’m not sure how I would do it.”

“Our classroom teachers have done an excellent job of transitioning to online teaching, which is not easy,” Tartell concludes. “For music students, there is no substitute for live performance. We have made an extra effort to encourage chamber music, which I think is working. But even with that, the large ensemble experience is getting lost, which I wish we could figure out a way to do safely.”

Florida

As 2020 continues to unfold, Florida remains a particularly tumultuous area for COVID-19 numbers in general. As of mid-October, Florida is the state with the third most cases in the United States, only behind California and Texas. Still, at the Frost School of Music – part of the University of Miami – dean Shelly Berg says “I feel the Frost school is one of the safest environments any of us can be in.”

Frost’s own safety precautions are extensive, but so far no students have contracted COVID-19 on campus, nor have they spread the virus while in a classroom, according to Berg. The dean shares that of the 600-plus students who returned to campus in mid-August, only five have contracted COVID-19, and in every case, the students picked up the virus elsewhere.

Despite coming to class prior to their diagnosis, none of the five students spread COVID-19 to classmates or Frost staff – a great sign that the school’s policies are working.

“The Frost School has closely monitored the two major studies of wind playing and singing, and we are following and exceeding the recommendations, which involve: reduced size of ensembles, recommended distance between performers, short rehearsal and performance durations followed by room scrubbing with industrial scrubbers, special masks for singers and wind players, instrument bell covers, students using their own music stands, ‘pet’ pads for brass spit valves, UV lights in air handlers, electrostatic cleaning, MERV 13 filters in air units, sanitizing wipes and sprays in every room, etc,” Berg explains. “Air handling units were modified over the summer to increase air exchange from outdoors. Many rehearsals, lessons, practice sessions, and ‘pop up’ concerts are occurring outdoors, or using Dante Software for synchronous music making in separate venues. All of our classrooms are at 1/3 density. Small, self-identified ‘pods’ of students are assigned dedicated practice rooms, with air turnover in between practice sessions.”

In summary, Berg notes: “Everything is working. The students are grateful and enthused to be making music safely.”

Robert Carnochan, who has been at Frost for six years, serves as the school’s conductor and director of the Frost Wind Ensemble, as well as the department chair for the instrumental performance department.

“I feel very safe in our environment and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to UM president Julio Frenk and Frost dean Shelly Berg for their leadership throughout these trying times,” Carnochan says. “I know that our administrative team has been working tirelessly since March and investing a huge amount of financial resources into making this as safe and environment that it is.”

Carnochan’s time with his students has changed significantly with the school’s many safety precautions in place. Yet despite this, he remains delighted by their ability to make music together in person – which, at this point, has become a bit of a luxury amongst ensembles and bands.

“The learning environment is very different due to the precautions such as social distancing, facemasks, bell covers, limited rehearsal time, consistent breaks between rehearsal sessions for cleaning and airing, and a lack of live audiences for our performances,” he says. “Given all of these differences, I and our students, who have chosen to return to campus, are elated to be making music together again. Our love for music and our love for collaboration have led us to this point. I am unbelievably proud of all of the hurdles the students have cleared in order to create art again.”

In fact, Carnochan says the only thing that could be realistically improved right now is having more space for social-distanced rehearsals.

“Given all of the obstacles in our way due protocols in place to keep people safe, the only thing that would make managing all of this easier would be to have more large spaces suitable for teaching and rehearsing,” he adds. “Again, our administrative team, in particular Serona Elton, associate dean of administration, have worked diligently to find as many spaces as humanly possible for all of the faculty to deliver our curriculum and for that, I am extremely grateful!”

Washington

Itinerant music teacher Michael Isberg has been working with students in Washington’s Kent school district remotely since March. Under normal circumstances, Isberg travels from school to school on a weekly basis, teaching elementary students at multiple schools throughout the district, but COVID-19 has forced him (as well as the other teachers in the district) to move lessons online. Schools in the Kent school district started with entirely remote learning this fall, and per a decision from the district, classes will remain remote for the entirety of the fall semester, which officially ends in late January. Albeit challenging, Isberg says he’s at least grateful for the consistency, considering other schools in Washington have gone back and forth between learning models.

“There are some school districts around us that tried going to hybrid model, but their numbers started to spike so now they’re starting to pull back,” he explains. “I heard [that] has been really confusing for teachers, just for expectations for themselves and for their families. We’re going to stay remote for the first semester which ends January 28 of 2021. Personally, I think that was probably the right decision. At least now I know I can commit fully to this remote system.”

Isberg “meets” with students from each school twice a week for 30-minute classes, which were condensed down from 50 minute earlier this year to help accommodate for elementary students’ shorter attention spans. Since he’s been teaching in an online-only for months, he’s developed quite the roster of go-to tech tools and platforms to use with his students.

Chief among them is the Microsoft program Teams, where Isberg says he conducts all his online distance learning. He puts assignments for asynchronous learning on Canvas: “I’ll see their work online and I can grade it right there and send it to them,” he explains. The district’s own program, Skyward, helps teachers take attendance, post grades, communicate with parents, and access pertinent but sensitive student information, like allergies. Flipgrid is another major player in Isberg’s teaching setup, as well as Kahoot, a quiz-like game that he uses to help students review materials. Hal Leonard’s Essential Elements remains the basis of the district’s main music curriculum.

Isberg also noted he’s scaled back some expectations for classes to accommodate for the unique challenges presented by online learning, like technical difficulties on the students’ end of the screen. Measuring student engagement, for example, remains difficult because students are not required to turn on their cameras during lessons. “I understand because some of these kids are coming from below the poverty line and they might be embarrassed or ashamed, or just don’t want to show what their living condition is,” Isberg says.

Moreover, due to delays from extra sanitary precautions, many students haven’t even received their rented instrument in mid-October. “Some students have their own instruments, but I would say probably half get instruments [rented affordably] from the district,” Isberg explains.

To help accommodate for these issues, Isberg has focused his curriculum on the essential but “on-paper” parts of musicianship.

“A lot of it’s been [focused] on theory, note reading, rhythms, and a lot of online activity, identifying musical symbols. Mostly the reading aspect where, even before this, I always found that’s where kids struggled the most,” he says.

Both Teams and Zoom can create breakout sessions amongst select students, which Isberg can use to work with like instruments once all his students have received their rentals.

“In a typical in-person situation, I would be pulling out the flute section and trying to find another space in the building where I can just work with the flutes for 30 minutes,” he explains.

However, even these online resources have their downfalls; Isberg fears that there aren’t enough moments for peers to interact, and without the allure of a forthcoming concert, students aren’t as motivated to learn and practice. Kent has both a strings program and an orchestra program, which usually perform multiple concerts per year. All those performances, of course, are currently off the table.

“You definitely need that carrot in front of them, that motivation,” Isberg says. “I loved concerts because it made my teaching easier. When we get into the actual [virtual] playing, not only is there lag in the audio and video, but sometimes it depends on their Wi-Fi connection. There’s no way we can have a virtual concert. It can’t happen, unless they have really good microphones and they had really good bandwidth.”

At the very least, Isberg says, he now has a new skillset as an educator, whether he’s teaching in school or from home. “When we go back or even next year, what I’m creating now, I’m going to keep it all. There’s so many aspects that I’ll keep as part of my curriculum that I don’t have to take up classroom time with,” Isberg says. “I can just put on the board, ‘Go to Canvas. Your assignment’s on Canvas for tonight,’ when we’re in person. Or I’ll put a video up there, ‘This is your homework.’ I can actually give homework instead of collecting papers. As we get used to this more and more, I just think it’s going to really become a larger part of teaching. I find I developed a whole new skillset. Which I think, for me, is a pretty cool thing and I can become a better teacher and I can serve my students better because of it.”

He happily concludes: “I see it getting better each week, to be honest with you. It’s just a matter on expectations. [Elementary] kids are excited. They don’t change too much, they still seem excited, they get their instruments, they’re ready to go!”



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