Warning: US schools are not Covid-ready for music

Warning: US schools are not Covid-ready for music


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2020

There has been a stern warning from Dr Adam T Schwalje, Resident Physician , Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and author of an assessment of Covid risks in playing wind and woodwind instruments – on the dangers posed by US schools guidance for the coming year.

I read with interest and some alarm the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Fall 2020 Guidance for Music Education (NAfME / NFHS Guidance). As many music educators and administrators are planning for return to school in the fall, it is vitally important that those in leadership roles, especially, are clear-headed about the excess risks, above and beyond the background risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2, that may go hand-in-hand with some kinds of music making and teaching. While the NAfME / NFHS Guidance often mentions ongoing areas of scientific research – and both groups have been strong proponents of this work – there is, unfortunately, insufficient scientific evidence to support several aspects of their suggested risk mitigation strategies. Relying on the NAfME / NFHS guidance may put teachers, students, and their families at increased risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2. For a full review of these issues please see https://medicine.uiowa.edu/…/wind-instrument-aerosol-covid-….

If, as the NAfME / NFHS Guidance states, we still need “to learn how COVID-19 may spread via aerosol distribution in music and develop mitigation techniques to prevent or lessen aerosol distribution during singing and playing of wind instruments,” it is incumbent on administrators and leadership to acknowledge that in-person lessons and ensembles using wind instruments might increase risk of spread of COVID-19. The NAfME / NFHS Guidance suggests “If providing in-person, indoor instrumental ensemble experiences, teachers may focus on chamber music with smaller groups of students due to social distancing constraints.” However, simple social distancing would not protect against the possible aerosol spread by wind instrumentalists, and as mentioned above, risk mitigation strategies are under active investigation. If, as the NAfME / NFHS Guidance asserts, “students should not play recorders in school until the results of the COVID-19 aerosol study are complete,” then the safest course of action would be to not play wind instruments in school until those studies are complete, also. It should be explicitly stated that any other course of action may increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.

The NAfME / NFHS Guidance contains procedures for beginning instrumental demonstrations and fittings. These procedures allow for students to play shared wind instruments as little as 5 minutes apart, after cleaning mouthpieces using guidelines for hard, nonporous surfaces. There is potential for significantly elevated risk if students play wind instruments that have just been played by another student, even if mouthpieces have been cleaned and disinfected. Sharing of instruments in this way should not be attempted until much more is known about the possible infectivity of the droplets deposited inside instruments – especially for beginners whose mechanism of sound production may be nonstandard. There is no validated method to clean or disinfect instruments. Another issue, not mentioned in the NAfME / NFHS Guidance, is that sharing of reeds in this context, even if cleaned with alcohol, is not safe. Reeds are not a solid surface and therefore the CDC guidelines for cleaning cannot be applied to them.

NAfME and NFHS have been strong proponents of scientific study into the potentially increased risks associated with music making in the COVID-19 era. As this study is ongoing, it is vitally important that leadership be clear about the uncertainties involved in any proposed risk mitigation strategy.


  • Josef Wald says:

    We recently saw and continue to see huge amounts of rioters and protesters shoulder to shoulder, masked and unmasked in enormous numbers and they’re fine.

    No news reports about people contracting COVID-19 from these very large gatherings which in theory put others in danger.

    They didn’t even get ticketed or arrested for putting others “willfully at risk” during City, County, State and National orders to “Shelter in Place”.

    No need to overreact if all of those people just PROVED this is mostly hype.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      1) it’s early. We’ll know more in a month, or at least be able to make more of an evaluation.
      2) would we know (or be told) if they weren’t fine, if they are young and don’t get real sick, but are just infectious to others?
      4) we should be asking “and how are their parents or grandparents or others with whom they come in contact?”
      3) is “fine” the issue or is “tests positive for Covid 19” the issue?

      • View from the EU says:

        Not sure what you’re on about since all of the rioters in the states have no symptoms.

        No major network has run any story, so the litmus test (large, unwieldy mobs of diverse ages and health concerns actively marching and committing violent physical acts) clearly show no need to panic by everyone who remained indoors as ordered.

  • Tony Oft says:

    Covid-19 is not dangerous to children.

  • Craig says:

    I can tell you where I am, the schools simply don’t care. Or at least, they don’t have the budgets to care. Instead, they are focusing on the small things they can control, such as the deck chairs. They can’t fix the Titanic.

    Therefore, we will get a big show around hand sanitizer, but will have kids crammed full capacity in every bus. Athletics starts back up in 5 weeks, with no modifications for contact sports. And then we get stats that kids barely even notice when they get it.

    And thus band will be BAU. They have issued guidance that if none of the CDC recommendations can be followed at school, and since no masks will be required, the teacher has the option of making the students face the same way to mitigate spread. Yay.

    I hope it’s true that kids, since they have minimal if any symptoms, don’t transmit. We’re about to have a grand experiment in less than 2 months.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    Most schoolchildren would be using plastic recorders, I’d guess, which could be bathed in disinfectant, but wooden ones, given time, should be self-disinfecting, I would think, if wood is anti-bacterial in nature.

  • Molly On The Shore says:

    I’m a HS music educator in the upper midwest. Like many in my position I am awaiting additional guidance on the “how” of getting back to making music from our state agencies. Here’s the reality of what I am facing (and planning for)…

    1. I am currently classroom planning for three contingencies: full face-to-face instruction, a blend of face-to-face/virtual and virtual.

    2. We will not hold our traditional summer marching band camp. Instead we will be meeting in small groups (per state guidelines) to do some playing and teach marching skills. I don’t know how you teach a marching band show to 15 students at a time but we are hoping to get on the field for one home game.

    3. Today I am measuring the square footage in our rehearsal hall to determine how many students we can appropriately handle at one time. That will drive many other decisions for September.

    4. If we are not able to rehearse as a complete ensemble I am preparing to place students in smaller (flexible) chamber groups that can meet to keep kids playing.

    5. I’m purchasing additional instruments (tubas, bari saxes, bass clarinets) and music stands to eliminate the common practice of sharing instruments.

    Lots of work ahead…BUT as long as we can get kids together and make/teach music, the format (or ensemble) doesn’t matter to me.

  • So ask a different expert and get a different answer. Why are only the grim pronouncements of the doom-sayers reported? Back to school. Back to work. It’s a virus. You can run but you can’t hide.