Visual and performing arts programs are expected to return to New Jersey schools this fall with the same energy they had pre-pandemic.

But as kids return for fully in-person instruction, things on stage and in music class will look quite different in the 2021-2022 academic year, based on guidance released this month by Arts Ed NJ, the performing arts affiliate for the National Association of State High School Associations.

Going beyond Gov. Phil Murphy's requirement that all students, educators and staff be masked while indoors, which is meant to limit the spread of COVID-19, Arts Ed NJ's "September Forward" guidance recommends that indoor rehearsal time for the arts be limited to 50 minutes, in order to allow for an air exchange before activity resumes.

As part of the recommendations, students who play wind instruments such as the trumpet or flute are being told to "mask their instruments" while playing.

"By masking the bell, you are, in essence, masking the player," said Bob Morrison, director of the organization.

The result of discussions with health experts and more than 100 arts educators and stakeholders since 2020, the recommendations also note that the mask mandate shouldn't go out the door when someone is singing, as part of choir practice or a musical rehearsal, for example.

"No student should be singing indoors without a mask on, period," Morrison said.

When feasible, social distancing of three feet is recommended, the organization adds.

There are no mitigation requirements in place for outdoors settings. Last year, Morrison noted, many schools brought their productions outside. Schools may continue that trend, weather permitting, into 2022.

With many kids returning to the classroom statewide after months of remote or hybrid learning, arts education advocates say it's more important now than ever before for students to interpret their world and express their emotions. While all subject areas have suffered due to the pandemic, advocates suggest arts education may have been hit the hardest because there are so many key concepts that can't be transferred online.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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