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UpClose: Bob Morrison in Conversation with Dr. James Weaver and Dr. Mark Spede – Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert B. Morrison • October 2021UpClose • October 9, 2021

Dr. James Weaver (National Federation of State High School Associations) and Dr. Mark Spede (College Band Directors National Association) sat down for a conversation with Bob Morrison (Quadrant Research/Arts Ed NJ) regarding the latest information from the International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study and the implications for the new school year and how you may use this information to help inform policies and practices in your communities or states.  Our goal is to give you those tools to allow music and performing arts to resume in person for the 2021/2022 school year.

Importance of State and Local Health Guidelines

Bob – Could you talk a little bit about the importance of following state and local health recommendations in this environment, particularly given that they vary so widely from state to state at this point?

Dr. James Weaver – Every state and local municipality will have a different set of guidelines to which they must adhere. One thing we’ve done in the United States is we have moved the mitigation capacity as far down to the local level as humanly possible. And so, we end up having local school districts to local towns to counties to clusters of counties to states that all have their different recommendations and guidance. Depending on what state you’re in will depend on the level you follow. Some states have statewide requirements while others will leave it to county or local level. So, it’s really important to follow those and be aware of what they are.

Dr. Mark Spede – I think it’s also important to impress upon everyone that you’re speaking with that the recommendations that we have put out from the International Coalition Performing Arts Aerosol Study are truly science-based. They do mitigate transmission of coronavirus. And those seeking to circumvent those mitigations by just canceling music are not really making sound decisions based on science. So we have the data. And ours is not the only study. There are a number of studies out there that have found very similar results. And we feel confident that using this layered approach to mitigations will reduce the risk to an acceptable level for everyone.

The Delta Variant 

Bob – Is there any difference between how effective the strategies are for the first variation of the virus versus the Delta variation of the virus that everyone’s concerned about now?

Dr. James Weaver – When we did the study, we focused on the vehicle in which the virus is transmitted. That was done intentionally on our end because we can’t infect people on purpose with a deadly virus. That’s a little on the unethical side. And then, we also were constrained with what we could actually measure. We really focused on what size of particles can be carrying the COVID-19 virus.

The COVID-19 virus is the same size. And so, I like to equate this to a highway. If you have a six-lane highway and it is just packed with cars, everyone’s going 10 miles an hour. And then, you start using all these mitigations, where now we’re taking about 90% of the vehicles that can carry the virus out of the environment, which is what the mask, the bell cover, the distancing, the air purifiers, those kinds of things do is they take out about 90% of the vehicles that are there. Now, we have a very easy moving area with not a lot of cars on there. Now we have focused on reducing the number of ways that we can depopulate the highway and then thus reduce the amount of viral load that’s out in the air. As a result, we reduce the infection risk.

Dr. Mark Spede – We’re all concerned about how the virus is mutating. But one thing that’s not happening is the virus is not getting smaller. All these mitigation strategies that we’re using, especially the masking and the bell covers, are capturing over 90% of the aerosol that’s coming out of the mouth, instrument, et cetera. So that part of our strategy has not changed. If the virus were somehow getting smaller and smaller, then we would have a different concern. But really, it’s as small as it’s going to get. 

Dr. James Weaver – And based on the data we were able to narrow in really specifically on the viral particle size and the aerosolization particle size. We didn’t do some of the measurements that tracked every particle that would ever come out of the human body because some of them are extremely small and couldn’t carry the virus anyway. We really honed in on, “This is the range in the size of aerosol that this virus can transmit in.” And that’s really where we focused.

When we say we’re cutting out about 90% of the aerosols coming into the environment, we’re basically saying that we’re bringing it down to the background level of aerosol in the room. And thus, we’re reducing the overall risk by about 90%.

Mitigation Strategies

Bob – What are the mitigation strategies and how important are they in this environment where we have such a large portion of our student population that remain unvaccinated.

Dr. James Weaver – We know that masking, both the student, the instrument, having some distance, having reduced time, increasing the air flow, and then making sure we’re following hygiene recommendations, is really quite effective.

Do Mitigation Strategies Work?

Dr. James Weaver – We did an analysis of over 3,000 schools following our mitigation strategies last spring (2021), So we ran the survey in April and May and released the results in June. Of those 3,000 schools, there were 1,641 self-identified COVID cases within a music program. And of those 1,641 schools that had a COVID-positive student in their program, only eight of them identified as a spread inside of their program. Of those eight, only one was more than a one-to-one transmission component.

 Dr. Mark Spede – The risk of transmitting COVID in a classroom this past year during 2020 was only one in 2 million for a 30-minute rehearsal period. That’s extremely low. And that is a very conservative number.

(James) If you didn’t use the mitigations, your risk level went up by 457%, compared to if you used the mitigations.

Bob – The mitigations were extremely effective in significantly reducing risk to levels similar to a regular classroom where students are sitting with masks. And by following mitigation strategies, we are able to bring our programs in and have our students engage in these Performing Arts activities within their schools, which we all agree is critically important as our students are now coming back to school, in many places, being out of school for 18 months or so.

Mitigation Strategies for Music Education

Elementary General Music

Dr. James Weaver – When we start talking about elementary music, there’s a lot of things that we have to remember about little kids and how they move into an environment. If you’re doing non-aerosolization activities in your elementary general music classroom, they should be following the same recommendations that your school has for when they’re in their general classroom. If the students are in the general classroom and you have masking recommended or masking required, they should be doing the same thing in your general music class. If you’re going to play on the piano and students will dance around the room and no one’s singing, if you’re doing boomwhackers, or Orff instruments, or similar activities, those should all follow the same protocols as the general education classroom.

 Recorder 

Dr. James Weaver – Now if you’re going to do high-aerosolization activities such as recorder and singing, recorder is pretty easy. You’ve just put a cloth or plastic wrap on the bottom, to catch the large aerosol droplets, and you’re done. That’s it. Doesn’t have to be fancy, because there’s no wet vibrating surface on the recorder to generate aerosol. And so, you’re not aerosolizing those larger particles. You’re just trying to catch the stuff that’s still a large particle droplet before it spews out in the environment for whatever distance.

Bob – I want to reinforce the issue around the recorder that, based on the research, the recorder itself is not generating aerosols. The cloth around the bell is there to be able to catch any of the condensation, any of the droplets that come from playing the instrument. Playing the recorder itself is not creating any aerosols whatsoever.

Singing

Dr. James Weaver – When it comes to singing, I would recommend having some sort of a singing mask. And I use that as a general term, not as a specific brand-name term. The easiest thing to do, honestly, is just to go buy blue paper masks that are F2100 standard for ASTM and have your administration buy you boxes upon boxes of those. So, when you’re ready to go sing, you train your kids: “Okay. Let’s go grab a mask.” And they grab their mask, they put it on, they sing. When they’re done, they throw in the garbage can and they’re out the door. Those are highly effective masks. The reason why they’re so effective is they have three layers. That middle layer is a blown-in, non-woven material that acts as a static balloon to aerosol particles. And so, when you start talking about that in the elementary class, that’s really what you want to have when you start those singing components.

Dr. Mark Spede – We’re talking about the blue surgical mask style. We’ve all seen surgeries done by surgeons and staff. They’re all wearing those masks. They are not wearing those masks to protect themselves really. They’re wearing those masks to protect the patient, who now has an open incision, from infection. So, the same concept applies. The mask isn’t to protect an individual. It’s to protect the others around the person who may be infected. So that mask will catch much of the aerosol that could be carrying virus from getting out into the environment. That’s the whole purpose of masking. It is the major component that is keeping infected aerosol from getting out into the environment – by blocking it at the point where the aerosol is produced.

Secondary Music

 Singing

Dr. Mark Spede – For singing, we know that masks are going to be very effective. At least until the CDC recommends that we don’t need to wear masks anymore, in choir settings and in singing settings, we should be wearing a mask. And for the very same reason I just stated, that we’re trying to capture the pathogen at its source. If that person were infected, we keep most of it from getting into the room.

Instrumental Music

 Bell Covers/Masks

Dr. Mark Spede – As far as instruments, the bell covers really serve the same purpose as a mask – to capture aerosol as it leaves the end of the instrument. The two concepts are the same. Reduce the amount of aerosol getting into the room. Masking and bell cover.

Bob – We’ve seen recently where a lot of the recommendations allow for the instrumentalists to no longer wear an instrumentalist mask when they’re playing the instrument. Could you address that for our readers?

Dr. Mark Spede – This really goes to your individual comfort level and also the rate of transmission in your community. If your community is experiencing a high rate of positivity in terms of COVID, you might consider using the slitted mask concept so that the player is still wearing a mask, they put their mouthpiece through the flap and then minimize the amount of aerosol. If the community transmission rate is fairly low, you can consider not wearing a mask while the instrumentalist is playing. Still use the bell cover. But just instruct your players not to speak without a mask on. In other words, you wear a mask up until the point you’re going to play. You can take the mask off, you play, and then put the mask back on. If somebody wants to ask a question, you tell them, “Please put your mask on first” since speaking is a high aerosol-producing activity, just like singing. We want to minimize the amount of speaking without a mask on.

Dr. James Weaver – One of the main reasons for this guidance is most of the aerosol that’s coming through the instrument is going through the instrument. It’s the law of fluid dynamics. The aerosol is going to follow the path of least resistance. As you blow basically a stream of air into the instrument, it’s going to keep following that stream of air out the instrument. As we got more and more refined data, we’re not seeing a lot of aerosol coming out of the instrument key holes or the embouchure. We’re seeing vast majority going through that bell. And so, the bell cover really is highly effective in catching most of it and the performance mask is just catching the stuff that’s coming from around the embouchure. And I think that is another reason why we made it more of an optional.

Distancing and Time

Bob – With the recent update to the report that came out in July, there was also a change in both a decrease in the distancing recommendation and an increase in the amount of time for these activities, particularly for singing, for performances or instrumental music making. Can you talk briefly about what influenced those decisions?

Dr. James Weaver – When we started looking at all of the data coming in and how the modeling works, we really started seeing how that aerosol cloud accumulates over time. And so, one thing we’re seeing is that our initial recommendation of 30 minutes was because we were being very cautious and saying, “Okay. Let’s make sure that we can stop that cloud from getting near anybody.” And then, the six-foot distancing was really pinned upon us by the CDC because that’s what their recommendation was at the time. They have since aligned to where our thinking is in that three-foot recommendation.

With the three-foot recommendation from the CDC, we’re following suit on that distance. And then, as we looked at how much that accumulating cloud would grow over time, we felt pretty confident that, at an hour, it really gets big. But at 50 minutes, we’re still below that threshold for the three-foot distancing. And so, we were comfortable in saying, “All right. 50 minutes. Three feet. We should be good.” 

Dr. Mark Spede – If you know that your room has a high air exchange rate? For instance, industry standard is three changes per hour. If you know your room has, say, six changes per hour or ten changes per hour, you could also consider increasing the time of the rehearsal. But you really need to know what that air change rate is. So, we’re basing our recommendation on the standard three changes per hour.

Air Change/Ventilation

Bob – So what if I don’t know my air changes? What if my administration doesn’t know? What do you recommend as strategies? Or what if my room has a low air change rate? What can I do as a music educator? Or what can I take to my administration as a suggestion to address this?

Dr. James Weaver – So if you don’t know what it is, I would just start assuming that it’s zero. Like, “We have no air change in here at all.” Now that’s going to not be true. You’re going to have some air change rate. But if you assume it’s at zero and then go to your administration and say, “Hey, we need HEPA air cleaners to get us up to three,” And since we don’t know and we can’t find out, let’s assume it’s zero and let’s crank that bad boy up to three.

There are all sorts of HEPA air cleaner products that are out there. Make sure that they’re CADR certified. You don’t want to just go buy one. If they don’t have the CADR rating to them, there’s no industry proof that that’s what they really do. And we have information about that on the study website.

If you do take this approach; let’s assume it’s zero, get it up to three through HEPA air cleaners; then if you do have one or two or three air changes per hour that you can prove it’s actually there, you’re getting that much more clean air coming into your room.

Dr. Mark Spede – Right. And still, the strategies of opening windows, opening doors to create cross-ventilation, will help the air change rate as well. So those things should still be considered if you don’t know your air change rate. Or even if you do, you can still increase the ventilation that way.

Dr. James Weaver – It is really important to have cross-ventilation. If you just have one room where you open it up into stagnant air with a window, that’s not actually creating that cross-ventilation. You want to make sure you’re actually creating the fresh air coming into your room.

What if I do not have time for air change?

Bob – I’m a music educator in my classroom. Because of scheduling, I don’t have the luxury of time for that air change. My kids are coming in and I do one class and then another class comes in. Are there things that I can do that will still allow me to have activity in my room with singing and playing, even though I don’t have that luxury of a pure air change?

Dr. Mark Spede – Yeah. I think teachers can get creative about some activities that don’t involve aerosol production. So just sitting quietly and breathing with a mask on is going to create a very minimal amount of aerosol. After your music portion where you are singing, playing, you can have an activity where the students are just sitting, doing another activity that doesn’t involve the singing, playing, speaking. You can think of all sorts of ways to get around that and still have a productive learning environment. Having the students sit quietly, doing something, another activity, for 15, 20 minutes, is the same or almost the same as leaving the room.

 Bob – Another way they could do it is they could create a buffer. The first part of the class is that activity. Then, comes the playing or singing aspect of it. Then have another buffer activity. They can add those together as they’re layering classes in and almost come up with that air change window in light of that type of schedule. I think that’s very helpful for folks.

Shields and Partitions

Bob – Just to reinforce this point, what about shields and partitions?

Dr. James Weaver – Don’t use them.

Dr. Mark Spede – Yeah. They’re only effective in very brief, short-range environments with no masks on. The cashier at your grocery store, somebody behind an office desk where the public comes in. But creating boxes inside of a room with partitions? Very ineffective. They create dead zones for the HVAC system. And wearing a shield on your face with no mask really is not doing anything about aerosol. And that’s really where the virus is catching a ride to other people. So, they don’t protect you or anyone around you. That aerosol, it’s still going to go around the shield and into the room. So, shields and partitions, not recommended.

Next Steps: Outdoors/Indoors

Bob – Any thoughts about next steps as we’re moving into the fall? Next steps with the study? Anything else that we should be on the lookout for?

Dr. James Weaver – Yes! While the weather in our continent is still pretty good, this is a great time to go outdoors, re-engage the students in the community of speech, debate, theater, music, get them back into the activity that they love and can be part of the community. This is really important to do. It’s easy to do outdoors because the earth is huge. There’s lots of fresh air on the planet. And so, it dilutes very quickly.

Dr. Mark Spede – One more point about outdoors that James was talking about. One other factor that’s helping us is that the coronavirus is vulnerable to UV light. So if you’re in the sunshine? Well, even on a cloudy day, that UV light is still out there. That’s another protective layer when you’re outdoors.

Dr. James Weaver – As winter starts creeping from north to south, I think it’s really important that you know what you are able to do before you go inside the classroom. So if you were one of those districts that never met in person last year, have those conversations yesterday with your administrators, “Do I have ESSER Funds to buy air cleaners? Do I have ESSER Funds to make sure I’m not sharing instruments? Do I have ESSER Funds to make sure that I have the proper PPE inside my classroom, whether it’s bell covers or masks?”

ESSER Funds can be used for a lot of things. And there is a ton of resources on how to get to those dollars. And it’s about readiness. The NFHS has a resource called “Return to Music.” Almost everybody has something out there that talks about ESSER Funds. Make sure we have those conversations with our administrators as the next big step.

Next Steps: Aerosol Study 

Dr. James Weaver – We extended the study to go through December to continue to refine the results. We will also continue to monitor the situation and adjust if needed as the school year progresses. I was thinking about this the other day. This was supposed to be a six-month study. We started in May of 2020 and we were supposed to be done by November 2020. 

I feel very fortunate for the Performing Arts community that we really came together in an unprecedented way that allowed us to have the resources to continue to study into this December so we really know some things that we may not have known otherwise.

Dr. Mark Spede – I would just add to everything that James said about our study and everything else, if you are living in a community where administrators are still talking about not allowing music activity, we need to make this stop. It’s not based on anything but fear and witchcraft. We need to follow the science and stop this voodoo type of mentality, that, “Oh! Oh! This is a high-risk activity.” It’s not. If we use the mitigations, it’s possibly lower than some other aspects of being in school.

So, we know how to do this. It’s proven by science. It’s been borne out in the assessment that we did, our risk study, risk analysis. We need to advocate for our programs and we need to do it now. There are these pockets out there where people are still struggling. We need to advocate. We need to link to the science. The paper is out. It’s published. It’s gone through the peer review process. It’s good data, it’s real science, and it works.
Bob – I would argue that we have more scientific-based strategies for Performing Arts than any other academic or scholastic activity. We have taken this very seriously to make sure that we know, what are the protocols that we can put in place to reduce risks so that our programs can continue for the benefit of our students? 

And at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. Providing these opportunities for all of our students.

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