Winnipeg students devastated after COVID restrictions silence school choirs

By | October 28, 2020

Hundreds of students in Winnipeg have been ordered by the provincial government to stop singing — something a choir teacher says was an ill-informed decision impacting the mental health of students.

“I was just so extremely disappointed because I do not believe the decision was based upon solid ground,” said Maples Collegiate choral teacher Dorothy Dyck.

Since Oct. 26, schools in the Winnipeg metropolitan area and northern Manitoba have been under a code orange in the province’s pandemic response system.

One of the new rules is that indoor choir and the use of wind instruments are not permitted.

That decision is affecting 250 students at Maples Collegiate who participate in six choirs, Dyck said.

Dyck said she doesn’t think Manitoba’s health officials knew all the precautions her school has taken.

“We didn’t get any directive from the province at all,” she said. “We had to figure it out, and so we did. We spent all summer reading, and researching, and waiting for these studies to come out,” she said.

In August, two studies, one from the University of Colorado and one from the University of Cincinnati, looked at how aerosols were spread while singing and playing instruments.

“Out of these studies, things were brought forward for keeping singing as safe as possible, and that’s what we were doing,” Dyck said.

Singing with masks on for 30 minutes in the gym

Along with singing in masks, the rehearsal time was also limited to 30 minutes, something the study out of Colorado found dropped the rate of infection from 87 per cent down to just 12.

The Maples choirs also moved to the gymnasium so everyone could spread out in an open space.

Dyck said the school division’s head of maintenance climbed up into the vents of the gym to get information about the ductwork. A math teacher calculated the air ventilation to determine air was being exchanged every five minutes.

We are as safe as any other activity.​​​​​– Dorothy Dyck, Maples Collegiate choral teacher

“No one is saying that we can guarantee that things are completely safe,” Dyck said. “We now can point to those numbers and know that we are as safe as any other activity.”

A spokesperson for the provincial government says its guidelines on music are based on multiple reports globally where participation in a choir was associated with “super-spreader” events, where COVID-19 was spread to many people.

“Infected people may transmit the virus over greater distances through their saliva or respiratory droplets while singing,” the spokesperson wrote.

To date, there have been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Maples Collegiate.

Dyck said the province should take a second look at how schools were running their choirs, rather than just banning them outright.

“They’re kids that are just trying to find their voices,” she said.

She says she worries the pandemic is affecting the mental health of students.

“We see their dead eyes. Their body language: they’re slumped forward, their arms are limp, they don’t really raise their hands when they’re asking questions,” she said.

“We’ve really worked hard at trying to use choir and trying to use singing as breathing life into their bodies and changing their eyes, and we had just started to see some real progress.”

‘Devastated’ at province’s decision

Jashdane Santiago, a Grade 11 student and member of three choirs, said she’s struggling to accept that she can’t sing in choir anymore.

“I was very much devastated,” Santiago said.

Jashdane Santiago, singing in the gymnasium this fall, says choir made her feel like she was flying. Now she says it feels like her wings have been clipped. (Submitted by Jashdane Santiago)

“Being in choir feels like you’re flying. But then with the news saying that you can’t sing anymore, it just felt like the wings that I’ve been flying with were just clipped,” she said.

The choirs already can’t perform, so it was an extra blow to have their rehearsals taken away, she said.

“Everyone had really high hopes that we could still do what we would normally do, but just a bit different than before.”

Javen Cabrera, a Grade 12 student, said he didn’t take the news well either.

“It was heartbreaking,” Cabrera said. “I was confused, hurt, and really angry.”

The pair said they would be happy to take any extra precautions if it meant they could keep singing.

“Singing with other people reminds me that I’m not alone,” Cabrera said.

The superintendent for Seven Oaks School Division said the they are in discussions with the province about the new rules.

“We’re trying to make the province aware of some of the measures the teachers have taken. We’re doing everything we can to keep a strong program going,” Brian O’Leary said.

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