November 18, 2020

Arts at Princeton Public Schools Flourish, With Creative Responses to COVID-19

By Donald Gilpin

The pandemic has forced schools to adapt with numerous, constantly evolving manifestations of remote, hybrid, and restricted in-person learning. The particular nature of arts education has created some of the greatest challenges for COVID-era teachers at Princeton Public Schools (PPS), along with some of the most creative and effective solutions.

“The arts are alive and well at Princeton Public Schools,” said PPS Visual and Performing Arts Supervisor Patrick Lenihan. “We’ve definitely learned a lot from this situation. We’re finding creative solutions to the challenges in front of us and we’re using these to make great music and art together.”

Masks and social distancing are required, of course, but, a PPS press release reports, some special measures have been introduced to keep the visual and performing arts classes safe and on course. These include tents with flaps up to let the breeze through during outdoor rehearsals, special masks for singers and masks with flaps over the mouth for wind instrument players to allow a mouthpiece to be inserted, bell covers for the ends of trumpets and trombones, and bags that hold the woodwind instruments, blocking the aerosols but allowing students to see their fingers.

While rehearsals might be in-person when possible or otherwise by Zoom, the current plan is for performances to be virtual, like the Princeton High School Choir’s Songs from the American Songbook concert on the district website last month, or the PHS Spectacle Theater production 12 Incompetent Jurors (a spoof of 12 Angry Men) this weekend, November 20 and 21, or the Princeton Unified Middle School’s Brief Interviews with Internet Cats on December 4 and 5.

For these productions, students record tracks individually at home, and those tracks are carefully mixed together to create the live-streamed performance.

Lenihan noted that in planning the PPS arts education programs, he and his colleagues have followed recommendations from the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and have worked closely with the Princeton Health Department. In April the NFHS developed a study on aerosols and mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of the virus.

Lenihan continues to meet regularly with local health officials as they collaborate to implement a phase-in plan, “a cautious and good approach,” Lenihan says, to move instrumental and choral group rehearsals from the tents into the school buildings.

After their successful opening outdoors, instrumental and choral groups will transition to Phase 2 on November 23, moving indoors. PPS did not opt for heated tents with side walls, which would have blocked air flow and ventilation.

The performers under the tent are situated on straight-line grids, instead of the more traditional performance space arcs so that the aerosol germs travel away from the musicians.

The more than 1,700 specially-made masks, created by costume designer and McCarter Theatre Costume Manager Cindy Thom, include surgical-style facial masks with flaps and small slits for the wind instruments and singers’ masks with extra space around the mouth to accommodate breathing and articulation. Percussion and string musicians wear regular masks. 

Lenihan noted Thom’s effective interactions with the students. “We have a great relationship with her, and she’s done wonderful work,” he said. “It’s been a great experience for all of us.”

The PPS musicians have gone through several different mask prototypes, with students suggesting adjustments based on their ideas and experience with the masks. Thom was able to fabricate the new prototypes rapidly to accommodate the students’ needs.

Lenihan is confident that the school ventilation systems will be working to full capacity to maintain a safe environment as the choral and band students move indoors next week. “The district is working to make sure there are enough air changes per hour to create safe spaces for our kids to rehearse,” he said.

Lenihan praised the accomplishments of the performers and faculty. “We’ve been pleased so far — not the same as we would be doing in a traditional environment, but we’re making the best of a difficult situation,” he said. “I applaud all of our students and teachers for rising to the challenge.”

Lenihan reported that drama, dance, and visual arts classes have continued to meet in a hybrid model. The PHS black box theater has been gridded in eight-foot squares to keep performers socially distanced. Most classes are limited to 12 students or fewer, and some students are working remotely from home, with teachers addressing the needs of both virtual and in-person groups.

The visual arts studio has installed plexiglass dividers to separate students. In a professional development session earlier this week, teachers were learning digital photo techniques and preparing to present virtual art shows.

Emphasizing the importance of the arts at PPS in the midst of the pandemic, Lenihan noted,  “Certainly there are feelings of nervousness about this new world that we’re living in, but it’s really exciting and really heartwarming to see the students playing together, singing together, and making art together.”