In rush back to classroom, teachers fear arts may lag

Music, art, theater all have ‘critical impact on our kids,’ educators say as they look to work within COVID-19 guidance
Credit: (AP Photo/Haven Daily)
File photo: March 2, 2021, students during a music class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, California; the school reopened on Feb. 22 for in-person learning.

As New Jersey schools creep back to in-person instruction, arts educators are making sure the performance and visual arts aren’t overlooked as students return to the classroom — or in their case the stage, choir room or studio.

The state’s leading arts education group this week sent out revised guidance to school districts to reinforce that arts classes have always been permitted for in-person instruction but do come with some extra precautions.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation and misinterpretation that’s taken place, with some places saying [arts classes] are too dangerous and aren’t even allowed,” said Bob Morrison, executive director of ArtsEd New Jersey, the arts education advocacy group.

“What we’re saying is ‘yes, you are allowed, and these are the factual points you need to know,’ ” Morrison said.

The state departments of health and education last week released the latest guidance for all schools, including conditions for certain arts instruction.

That release followed closely the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that stipulated when schools should be able to reopen and under what conditions of distancing and other precautions.

The main headline was that schools could reduce social distancing to 3 feet in elementary schools and in high schools where community transmission wasn’t high.  But in that guidance, the state made an exception for music education, for example, focusing on the potential vulnerability that comes with that instruction.

Extra distance for wind instruments

“Due to potential increased risk of droplet transmission, physical distancing should be prioritized for wind instruments and singing,” the guidance stipulated. “If it’s safe and weather permits, consider moving class outdoors where air circulation is better than indoors and maintain at least 6 feet distance between students.”

Gov. Phil Murphy also announced this week new guidance for the reopening of arts venues — indoors and outside — that includes school concerts and performances.

The state’s guidance includes the best practices provided by ArtsEd NJ in the fall, including the 6-feet rule. In that report, the association cited extensive research around the safety of arts education as long as certain protocols are met.

“We actually kept it at six feet for all arts education,” Morrison said of the fall guidance. “Until the research comes out about three feet, we know we’re safe at six feet.”

He and others said the reinforcement of the protocols is essential as worries rise about what students will face as they return to in-person instruction in general, including the potential of so-called learning loss. They stressed the arts shouldn’t fall by the way as schools focus on remediating literacy and math.

“A vast majority of districts understand the importance of arts on their kids, especially during these unique times,” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Yet Feinsod said there has been “some confusion” among school leaders over what the state would and wouldn’t allow. “At times, there hasn’t been crystal clear guidance on this,” he said.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the arts have such a critical impact on our kids,” he said.