Just in time for the public health ban on band, an order of about 175 bell covers — essentially masks for wind instruments to limit the spread of aerosols through playing — arrived at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate.
Four months later, the equipment remains untouched amid the COVID-19 pandemic, much to the dismay of young musicians.
"I don’t think playing music is any more risky than anything else we’re doing in school," said Ross Brownlee, a music teacher at the private school in Winnipeg. "Band needs to restart. Choir needs to restart. We just need to do it really carefully, for perception and for the safety of our kids."
The province put a moratorium on the indoor use of wind instruments and choir when schools entered a restricted level on the pandemic response system; first, in Winnipeg at the end of October, and later, across the province.
Music teachers have moved classes outside and online, or they have focused on history and theory but Manitoba students, parents and teachers are calling for ensembles to resume in person with safety measures in place.
The issue is dear to families involved with the newly formed Manitoba band parent advocacy group, who signed an open letter to provincial ministers outlining their case.
"For many Manitoba students, these extreme restrictions have not only impaired their musical development, but also destroyed the centre of their social lives and sense of belonging at school," their letter states.
The nearly 30 signatories argue students should be allowed to play instruments indoors if they can play indoor sports.
Grade 12 student Reid Hepworth, who plays both the alto saxophone and guitar, echoed those sentiments.
Internet lag prevents Hepworth’s concert band class from being able to perform together, so instead, students listen to their teacher play exercises and scales and follow along, on mute, at home.
"When you’re in a band, you’re kind of like a team, so you’re all in it together and you can listen to people and blend and make something really amazing," said Hepworth, who attends Transcona Collegiate. "When you’re just on your own… a lot of motivation is gone."
Pre-COVID-19, there were 290 band programs in Manitoba. Many have been affected, owing to pandemic uncertainty and early reports of choral super-spreader events.
"Our message from Day 1 has been the same: safety is of the utmost importance to band students and every Manitoban. Now, we know that extensive research shows (band) can be safe," said Chelsey Hiebert, executive director of the Manitoba Band Association.
A University of Minnesota study published in the fall found that wind instruments typically do not spread aerosols farther than one foot.
This month, a McMaster University review of related research concluded there is no clear evidence of transmission associated with wind instruments, although it is theoretically possible.
Hiebert listed physical distancing, the use of slit masks and bell covers, and allowing time for rooms to breathe to make sure there’s enough air exchange in a space as ways to reduce risk.
Manitoba Education indicated Friday the department is consulting teachers and public health officials.
"We know students have missed out on learning and performing music, which is an important part of education and well-being," Education Minister Cliff Cullen said in an emailed statement, adding Manitobans are asked to remain patient as the pandemic wears on.
Meantime, french horn player Katie Skwarchuk said outdoor rehearsals are far from practical since cold weather can damage instruments and affect brass players’ pitch.
"As a growing musician, I feel that I’ve lost a sense of purpose in my life. I can’t connect with others through a shared love and interest in making music together," said Skwarchuk, a senior at Vincent Massey Collegiate.
As Skwarchuk waits to hear whether she’s been accepted into post-secondary music programs, she said she’s nervous her skills will be rusty next year because of her limited ability to practise in a band at present.
Maureen Fitzhenry’s son, a tuba player at Oak Park High School, is in a similar situation.
"Music, already, is overlooked and ignored too much and considered to be an option or an unnecessary specialty, and it’s actually a core curriculum class," said Fitzhenry, a member of the parent advocacy group.
Manitoba is considering allowing music facilities to open for individual instruction and limited capacity group classes as early as March 5.
Fitzhenry said she hopes that means there’s finally "a crack in the door" for the resumption of school band.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.