RIVER FALLS — School Board will consider easing minimum distancing requirements for band and choir students from the health department recommended 13 feet to as close as eight feet in some instances.

A group of the district’s band and choir teachers presented the proposal at Monday night’s board meeting, contending students performing closer together would improve the experience and avoid mass withdrawal from the classes without significantly impacting the risk of transmitting coronavirus.

A vote on the proposal is expected at the Nov. 2 School Board meeting.

“There are some pretty big implications, especially at the middle school, in keeping the 13 foot distance,” chief among them that sixth grade band and choirs can’t fit in their rehearsal spaces without being split up, said Joe Coughlin, who teaches middle and high school band.

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Being kept 13 feet apart and more easily heard above the group also can cause some students to feel insecure or intimidated, he added.

The teachers pointed to two recent studies to back up their request: an aerosol study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, College Band Directors National Association and dozens of performing arts organizations, as well as a University of Minnesota study on aerosols transmitted by a variety of instruments.

Preliminary findings of the former study found the use of face masks and instrument bell covers reduced the range of aerosol particles. It recommended a minimum of six feet of distancing (nine feet for trombone players).

An email survey with 188 responses from parents of River Falls band students found nearly two-thirds would be comfortable with their children performing as close as six feet apart, and just over half of 195 parents of choir students responded the same, Couglin presented to the board.

School Board members voiced support for band and choir programs, calling them more than extracurricular activities.

“Music is so important to kids, important for brain development, community development, self-esteem, skill building — all of these things,” Board member Mike Thopmson said.

“I think we should give our music students the same opportunities we’re giving our student athletes,” Board member Alan Tuchtenhagen added.

Though some board members expressed a willingness to vote on the issue Monday night, others suggested it would be prudent to have extra time to research the studies that were presented.

COVID-19 update

Monday night’s board meeting also included a COVID-19 situation update by Superintendent Jamie Benson and announcement that Rocky Branch Elementary School would close for two weeks and move to distance learning beginning Tuesday, Oct. 27. Meals for pick up and limited day care will be provided.

The closure was for “proactively mitigating potential outbreak,” according to Benson’s presentation to the board. Contact tracing indicated possible transmission of coronavirus among school employees.

There were fewer than 15 students districtwide who either tested positive for COVID-19 and/or have returned to school as of Oct. 26, according to the presentation. There were 22 students out due to a household member having symptoms or awaiting tests results, and 99 students out due to being a close contact.