Thanks to leadership from Dr. James Weaver and the NFHS performing arts department, and Dr. Mark Spede, College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) president and Clemson University director of bands, the NFHS Aerosol Study has become a tremendous resource for scholastic performing arts programs across the country.
The unprecedented project has been supported by a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations, and it received additional lead funding from the National Association of Music Merchants and the D’Addario Foundation.
During the past eight months, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland have produced three rounds of study findings that have served as a guiding light for reinstating in-person performing arts activities in numerous states. In fact, the initiative has been so impactful that it became a crucial factor in three state arts associations – the Ohio Music Education Association (OMEA), Arts Ed New Jersey (AENJ) and the California Music Education Association (CMEA) – becoming NFHS affiliate members in January.
Before the Aerosol Study was commissioned, state and county health departments cast a troubling outlook for performing arts activities. With no real research to drive decision-making, singing, playing wind instruments and theatre production were considered totally unsafe and off-limits.
“Some districts couldn’t have band or choir – period,” said Dr. Ann Usher, OMEA president. “That was super stressful, and after we started to hear more of those types of things is when (OMEA Executive Director Roger Hall) reached out to James (Weaver).”
Originally called Ohio School Band Association and Ohio School Band and Orchestra Association, OMEA was started in 1924, and, with a current membership of approximately 3,000 individual music educators, is one of the oldest and largest state affiliates of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).
OMEA operates a large system of adjudicated festivals for solo and ensemble, marching band and large groups – concert band, choir and orchestra – that typically sees nearly 30,000 individual submissions per year between the district and state levels. While its all-state ensemble performances sadly became a casualty of the pandemic, OMEA was able to conduct virtual marching band and solo and ensemble adjudications this past fall and will do the same for large group events in May. A second round of solo and ensemble evaluations will be held in March after 600 entries were placed for the first installment.
In terms of professional development, OMEA sponsors a massive annual conference that hosts close to 10,000 participants and 40 to 50 performing ensembles each year. This year, the conference was held in a virtual setting February 4-6 and featured 67 workshops on a broad range of music topics. Performances from 24 selected ensembles were presented as YouTube premieres over the weekend as well.
Using mitigation strategies outlined in the study and connections to prominent physicians in the state’s major medical centers, OMEA began working with the NFHS this past summer to develop a Performing Arts Medicine Advisory Committee (PAMAC) that could potentially influence virus guidelines.
“(Creating a PAMAC) was really helpful and important because the initial draft of state guidance had essentially just copied- and-pasted the sports reopening guidelines and included some things we had not been advising people to do,” Usher said. “We made some suggestions and the governor’s office was very receptive to them. They even put the NFHS Aerosol Study in their guidance with links to OMEA resources and suggested people should use OMEA as a resource for their reopening plans.”
OMEA has blanketed the Buckeye State with the updated guidance, but since Ohio employs a “local control” philosophy with regard to educational governance, the decision to bring back performing arts activities is entirely up to the individual school districts, which number more than 600.
“Our state is all over the spectrum,” said Usher. “You will see everything from districts that are fully in-person with minimal risk mitigation strategies to our ‘Ohio 8’ urban school districts that are still fully remote and not back in-person yet – and every single thing in between.”
Bob Morrison, director of Arts Ed New Jersey, was in a similar environment of uncertainty when the pandemic took hold but was able to provide critical direction for programs by utilizing an aggressive approach with state leaders.
“It was really the Wild West until we started to step in to exert some pressure with our governor’s office, our Department of Education and our Department of Health,” Morrison said. “We actually were one of the funders of the Aerosol Study, so we got very engaged early on, and we were able to use the information with all of our authorities to at least have them understand how performing arts could be done in a way that is effective and mitigated for the virus.”
Arts Ed New Jersey began as a co-sponsored project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 2006 and became its own entity dedicated to arts education advocacy and policy in 2015. Made up of additional arts groups and cultural organizations within the state including the State Arts Council and educators associations for music, dance, speech and debate and theatre, Arts Ed New Jersey is primarily focused on creating proper conditions for arts learning to take place by ensuring policies, practices and opportunities for quality arts learning in every school across the state.
AENJ also bestows its annual Governor’s Awards in Arts Education. New Jersey is the only state in the country that presents awards to arts students on the governor’s behalf. Nearly 100 students and 10 adult leaders are recognized with awards each year, including the 2020 winners, who were honored during a virtual ceremony in June.
Also dealing with the challenges of a local control state, Morrison indicated the push to reinstate in-person singing, instrument playing, and theatrical performances continues to be applied vigorously in some counties, but that approval to begin indoor sports for the winter season has brought a significant jolt of support to the cause.
“Those arguments are prevailing in a lot of our communities,” he said. “If (departments of health) are going to allow contact athletics like wrestling and basketball to go on – if 10 student-athletes can run up and down the court and bang into each other without masks, and that’s okay – then a quartet wearing masks and socially distancing should be able to play, too.”
As a result of its preliminary involvement with the NFHS, which dates to April 2020, Arts Ed New Jersey has explored different ways of expanding its services including the inaugural New Jersey State Solo and Ensemble Festival – the first state solo and ensemble festival in New Jersey history. That exploration and the collaborative relationship between AENJ and the NFHS was what solidified AENJ’s intention to become an NFHS affiliate member.
“It was a process that naturally evolved and started with the Aerosol Study, but also opened the door to learn more about what the NFHS was doing related to the performing arts,” said Morrison. “We realized we needed to be working more closely together with the NFHS and wanted to formalize the relationship, and that’s what led us to it.”
Just like OMEA, the California Music Education Association is a state affiliate for NAfME and accepts individual music educators into its membership rather than schools. However, due to the state’s enormous size, the association is divided into nine independent sections, a structure similar to that of its athletics counterpart – the California Interscholastic Federation.
CMEA has been active since 1947 and sanctions state festivals for solo and ensemble, concert band, orchestra and choral, while collaborating with the California Band Directors Association (CBDA) and other partners to hold State Honor Ensembles Festivals. Individual sections run their own events at the sub-state level.
“We try to keep a coalition of partners and work for advocacy, and make sure students have opportunities all over the state, whether they are in the very rural areas in the northern part of our state or in the urban areas like Los Angeles and San Diego,” said Armalyn De La O, CMEA president.
In the wake of the pandemic last spring, CMEA restructured its offerings to host a wide-open Virtual Solo Festival for all types of musical submissions. In the process of planning and designing the event, CMEA Executive Administrator Trish Adams said the association benefitted greatly from the NFHS Copyright Resources and webinars that came out around that time, which also played a role in the decision to become an affiliate member.
Students will have the option to participate in that same wide-open festival again this year with entries due in mid-March. Performances may be live or recorded, but only those that are live are eligible for an official rating and advancement to the state festival in May.
With the vast majority of California schools still operating in a virtual learning environment, the effectiveness of the NFHS Aerosol Study has been limited. However, CMEA has still used it to the greatest possible extent to sway government sentiment for the school districts utilizing an in-person format.
In response to a California Department of Public Health report published July 17 that prohibited in-person band and choir classes of any kind, CMEA reached out to state leaders with their own report containing the first round of Aerosol Study findings, which had been published just a few days prior.
As a result of that response, the association was granted the opportunity to meet with various state department officials and sought Weaver’s assistance in presenting a supportive case.
Those efforts brought a slight change to the guidance language in October, which then allowed schools to begin singing and playing wind instruments outdoors under the caveat those activities were still “strongly discouraged.”
Although the allowance does not apply to most school districts given the preferred learning model and the choice of words in the new language is ambiguous, according to Adams, there are at least a handful of districts around the state that have taken advantage.
“I know there are a few districts, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more because I only hear about them if they reach out to me with questions about it,” she said. “But I will say this emphatically: without the Aerosol Study, they would not be singing or playing outdoors. Without the study, these districts would just say, ‘no way.’”
As these new NFHS affiliate members have profiled, a world of high school performing arts “without the study” would be a difficult one to imagine.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.