Here’s what performing arts classes will look like in Utah high schools during the COVID-19 pandemic

(Photo courtesy of Todd Campbell) Woods Cross High School band students practice on covered wind and brass instruments while wearing masks.

When Woods Cross High School students return to band class, the classroom will look different than the way they left it.

Chairs are spaced 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing, and students will be required to cover the bell (the flared opening) of brass and wind instruments such as trumpets, French horns, tubas, saxophones and clarinets. Music stands and chairs will be sterilized.

And students will be required to wear a face mask while playing — by cutting a slit in masks for the mouthpiece of their instrument.

Todd Campbell, director of bands at Woods Cross High, has two goals as he also serves as president of the Utah Music Educators Association during the COVID-19 pandemic: “The first one is to keep kids and teachers safe,” he said, “and the second is to keep music in the curriculum.”

Many school districts have released reopening plans for the fall, and while there is a statewide face mask requirement for K-12 students, the Utah Department of Health allows an exception for “a school-sponsored activity or physical education class if the individual cannot reasonably participate while wearing a face covering.”

Some districts have taken this to mean that band and choir students are required to wear a mask during classroom instruction, but are exempt from mask wearing while playing an instrument or singing.

In Murray, choir students will not be required to wear a mask while singing, said district spokesman Doug Perry, but they will be socially distanced and might practice outside. In a similar approach at the Granite School District, choir classes will likely spread out in an auditorium so students can sing without wearing masks, said district spokesman Ben Horsely.

But some teachers say it is critical to wear masks while singing or playing an instrument.

Campbell is following recommendations from a University of Colorado Boulder and University of Maryland study on the amount of respiratory aerosols (tiny droplets in the air) that are released while playing wind and brass instruments, singing, acting, speaking and dancing.

Preliminary results suggest that covering the bell of an instrument and wearing a mask can significantly reduce the concentration of aerosol released. The International Coalition of Performing Arts posted the most recent version of the study findings on YouTube on Aug. 6.

‘They need this’

Campbell said UMEA has met online with over 700 theater, art, dance and marching band teachers throughout the summer to develop plans to keep students safe. Teachers can find a complete list of resources, guidelines and recent science in a document on the UMEA website.

Leah Tarrant, choral director at Taylorsville High School and All-State Choir Festival manager for UMEA, said her students will be required to wear a face mask or modified face shield while singing this fall.

“I would hate for any of my kiddos to get sick because I didn’t take precautions,” said Tarrant, who has taught at the school for 23 years. “These families in this residential area have really come to trust me and I don’t want to hurt that trust, so I take this responsibility very seriously.”

In order to socially distance her 120 students, Tarrant will use the school auditorium — which seats 1,200 — as her classroom. She said students will sit 6 feet apart and every other row will be empty.

Her students will follow a specific seating chart in case someone contracts COVID-19 and their contacts need to be traced. The school also is considering limiting the audience capacity to 25% or livestreaming performances.

Tarrant said she’s thankful that students will be able to participate in choir during the pandemic, noting they were let down when their San Francisco tour was canceled due to the coronavirus.

“For the mental health of these kiddos, I think they need this in their life,” she said. “It’s just such a release for them.”

On the stage

Adam Wilkins, president of the Utah Theatre Association, said his theater students at Cottonwood High School will be required to wear masks while performing — and he said this shouldn’t reduce the sound quality.

For classwork, he intends to space students 6 feet apart in the school’s black box theater, a performance space with black walls and a flat floor. He also plans to follow directions from state health officials, which require each student participating in a school-sponsored activity to take a symptom assessment.

Wilkins also will limit physical contact between cast members, cut kissing scenes, limit the number of students on stage at one time and limit the number of props on stage.

To keep audience members safe, the theater will open an hour in advance, ushers will ensure that family groups sit 6 feet apart and viewers will be required to wear masks.

The theater department will also collect contact information from audience members and note where Utahns sit in case contact tracing is needed, and the school’s 3,000-seat auditorium capacity will be limited to 25%.

“The great thing about theater and the great thing about art,” Wilkins said, “is that even from a distance I think you can enact change.”

Other theater programs have gone entirely virtual. This summer, Youth Theatre at the University of Utah, a yearlong program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, hosted a six-week online camp that was entirely online.

Students met on Zoom and rehearsed mini productions. Kids were assigned lines from monologues or poems and recorded b-roll (supplemental footage) to accompany the lines.

Students submitted work through a platform called flipgrid, which let artistic director Penny Caywood give them feedback, and they could also see their classmates’ work as it was being created.

Watching others’ videos helped the students “build some of the community that we of course are missing because we can’t be together,” Caywood said.

Students from California and Colorado were able to participate, and Caywood and her students had Zoom meetings with speakers from across the country, including a theater company in New York.

‘Art will get us through’

Salt Lake City schools will hold performing arts classes, but they will be almost entirely online, said spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin. While the Salt Lake City School District will begin the school year online in September, it is hoping to shift to a hybrid model if the number of coronavirus cases goes down in Salt Lake County, she noted.

Schools will likely livestream performances and concerts, Chatwin said. Still, some students in performing arts classes might be able to meet in person because the district’s plans allow for small groups to get together, she said.

And while the district is learning online, schools will have a “digital day” for teacher prep, where teachers can meet one-on-one with students. Small group rehearsals or individual vocal coaching might take place during prep days, but students will still have to social distance, she said.

Educators say it is crucial that schools safely provide performing arts classes during the pandemic.

“Art isn’t going to solve the [coronavirus pandemic] but art will get us through it and art is a reflection of society,” Wilkins said. “And unless we ... bring art not only to our school but our community ... what are we trying to save?”


Researchers studying the safest ways to include performing arts in classrooms, performance halls and on athletic fields released a second round of preliminary results earlier this month.

Teams at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland offered recommendations in five main areas:

Masks • Wearing masks and using bell covers on instruments significantly reduced the range of aerosol particle emissions. Personal masks should be well-fitting, multilayered, washable or disposable. Bell covers should be made of non-stretchy material that protects against particles — but any type of covering is better than nothing.

Distance • Federal health guidelines for spacing (6 feet by 6 feet) should be used, with 9 feet by 6 feet for trombone players.

Time • Limiting rehearsals to 30 minutes or less significantly reduces the quantity and spread of aerosol. Indoors, leaders should wait until at least one, and ideally three, HVAC air changes have occurred before using the same room. Outdoors, playing should stop for about five minutes after each 30-minute segment.

Air flow • Outdoor rehearsals provide optimal air flow. If tents are used, choose open-air models with high rooftops and without walls. Indoors, HEPA filters are strongly recommended.

Hygiene • Keep common areas sanitized, encourage frequent hand washing, and empty spit valves onto absorbent sheets, such as puppy pads, not the floor.

“We are beginning to understand what steps can be taken to mitigate concerns and allow students to engage in the many life-affirming experiences that are central to the arts,” said James Weaver, director of performing arts and sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations, in a statement.

The Performing Arts Aerosol Study was commissioned by the federation, the College Band Directors National Association and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations.

Initial results released in July were based on aerosol pathways from a soprano singer and performers playing four different instruments. The second phase added more singers and instruments, and theater performers.

A final report, which will include research into speech, debate and an aerobic simulation, is expected in December.