For teachers of many subjects including violin, viola and cello lessons, the global pandemic has pushed classes onto online platforms.
As anyone who has taught or taken such lessons knows, it’s simply not the same as in-person lessons. On the positive side, platforms such as Zoom allow teachers and students to remain connected and to continue to make plans and progress.
But wouldn’t it be nice to get back to in-person teaching? It’s so much easier to hear, to see, to fix hand positions, to play duets, to chat while walking in the door, to just BE together.
This brings up the question that I’ve seen with increasing frequency on Facebook and other platforms: Is it time to go back to in-person teaching?
Of course the answer to this is: “it depends.” For example, if you live in New Zealand, where the coronavirus is nearly eradicated, then a return to in-person lessons seems reasonable enough. Some parts of Europe are also seeing declining numbers; it might be possible to try in-person lessons with certain precautions such as distancing, plexiglass screens, hand-washing, etc.
I live in the United States, where in recent weeks certain states have relaxed restrictions and encouraged the opening of businesses. A number of teachers have gone back to having in-person lessons, with varying levels of precautions such as wearing masks, washing hands, holding the classes outdoors and at a distance, etc.
At this point, though, teaching in-person remains a risky and inconvenient proposition in many, if not most, parts of the United States. Here is why:
First, the virus is spreading more rapidly than ever in the United States; it is not going away. Unchecked, it spreads at an exponential rate. Just this week, Thursday brought the highest number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. to date — even higher than in April, which was considered a peak. The proliferation of the virus in the United States, as well as the lack of contact tracing and testing, as well as the two-week incubation period for the virus, makes it very hard to tell whether one’s community is safe.
That being the case, both teacher and student would need to take extraordinary precautions to prevent transmission of the virus during an in-person lesson. But adhering to that level of safety precautions can actually be more unpleasant and more difficult than simply having the lessons online.
To get an idea of the level of precautions needed, take a look at this list of recommendations by medical doctor and epidemiologist Ethan Berke, given to Minnesota-based teacher Susan Crawford, who posted them on Facebook:
- People who can work from home should as a matter of social responsibility.
- There is high risk for the teacher (and those they come into contact with) due to the extended time in the room with various people.
- For every 15 minute chunk of time there is a 15 percent chance that you could catch the virus. The more time you spend in the same air space, the more chances you have to get it.
- Air circulation should be out of the floor, up to the ceiling, and then out of the room.
- If two or more people have to share the same air space for an extended period of time, they need N95 masks, which need to fit properly with an actual seal. People who need them are routinely “fit” for them.
- The room should have an open window and/or great air flow.
- Masks can’t substitute for distance. Six feet is the absolute minimum, but nine feet is better. At six feet, you have a 15 percent chance of catching it within a 10-15 minute time of exposure. For every three feet that you add, you reduce the risk. Nine feet gives you a seven percent chance.
- The tiny droplets or aerosols can stay in the air for a long time.
- Students should have health checks before entering, including checking temperature and answering questions before coming in. If they say yes to any of the following they shouldn’t be there: fever, difficulty breathing, coughing, diarrhea, sore throat, headache, congestion, fatigue, or muscle aches.
- Additionally, you should decontaminate the room after each person, then wait 15 minutes to let the room dry and air out.
Teaching this way is proving very difficult for those who have tried it. On Facebook, violin teacher Wendy Tangen-Foster described her recent experience with trying just one in-person lesson: “I taught one in-person lesson on my patio – a beginner who only had a few months of lessons before lockdown. I set up a rope to show physical distance and gave her a bath mat to help her know where to stand. She could barely play with her mask on, so that came off right away. (Her dad said it’s challenging to find masks that fit small children.) I tried so hard to keep my distance, but I just couldn’t. My teacher instincts kicked in and overrode my sense of precaution. With permission from her dad, I gave her some assistance with placing her violin, etc. I did not touch her directly, but I did touch her violin and came within 6 feet of her for moments at a time. I’m usually so hands on with beginners – It would be impossible for me not to help.”
“Logistically it was also difficult because I had to set up an outdoor studio. Then we had to keep rescheduling the lesson due to rain, and, during the lesson, I kept going back inside to get more and more teaching tools (her rubber band broke, we needed scissors, etc.)”
“Lastly, it was so uncomfortable to wear a mask while teaching, and she couldn’t see my big smile after her successful Lightly Row preview. But the main problem was that I felt so anxious and unsure afterward. Had I been exposed? Could I have exposed her or her dad? How would they feel if I got sick? How would I feel if someone in their family got sick?”
“The whole situation caused so much stress and was just so difficult in terms of logistics. I am much more comfortable with online lessons where my students are are actually faring quite well and we don’t have to worry about anything – and we can easily read each other’s faces and see each other’s smiles.”
I look forward to the day when the students and teachers in my area will be able to return to in-person lessons, but that day has not yet arrived. I urge everyone to continue practicing, learning, teaching and playing your instrument for fun. But to the extent we can, let’s protect each other and do our best to shut down the transmission of this virus.
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