Op-ed: Do you hear the people sing (and play wind instruments)?

Students at Tufts are now living in a Footloose-style fantasy: the university banned singing. Initially mentioned in a Sept. 2 email, the new rule prohibits any student taking part in in-person classes from singing or playing wind instruments anywhere in public or private in an effort to limit the spread of aerosols. Even students accustomed to singing in the shower will find that engaging in that type of behavior today risks disciplinary action. The university’s announcement acknowledges the hardships imposed by health policies enacted to staunch the spread of COVID-19 but ignores the uniquely impracticable restriction placed upon students studying music.

The new rule is incongruous with previous statements the administration has made regarding its handling of the pandemic, including its guiding principle of  “maintain[ing] the high quality of a Tufts education.” Claiming a music major can continue to receive a high-quality education without singing or practicing their instrument is as nonsensical as claiming an English major can do the same without writing. The administration said that policies like these are “necessary to safeguard public health.” But who is safeguarded by a ban on students singing in their own dorm rooms? Roommates, by virtue of living in close proximity with each other, are already exposed to all manner of their cohabitant’s oral ejecta. By sending mixed messages like these, the administration needlessly erodes the faith of the student body.

The ban stands out because the university has not sanctioned every other activity that could potentially lead to the release of aerosols, nor is it expected to. Otherwise it might ban speaking above a whisper, as one author in the Atlantic suggested. Ideally, restrictions should balance the costs of intrusions into daily life and violations of students’ freedom of expression with the benefits of the added security they provide. The administration must realize that for musicians, a blanket ban is about as impractical as asking them not to talk.

The timing of the announcement of the ban is also irresponsible, and suggests it was issued almost as an afterthought. The announcement said that “current scientific evidence strongly indicates that singing or the playing of wind instruments generates aerosolized particles,” which can transmit the virus to others. But that realization was no scientific breakthrough that occurred between the release of the university’s reopening plan in late June and the announcement of the ban just before classes began. The deadline to submit fall 2020 Intent Forms was July 7, and students that chose to attend classes in person are bound by any regulation Tufts chooses to enact. But music students have in effect been forced to comply with a surprise rule that would make their studies impossible if they adhered to it.

The administration cannot truly believe that the ban will eliminate singing altogether. It throws guiding principles in public health to the wind. The failures of abstinence-only education programs have shown that attempting to discourage certain behaviors by banning them outright is a generally ineffective public health strategy. If they’re not doing it in the shower, students will do it somewhere else. Despite the new rule, many will undoubtedly continue to sing. Tufts’ indiscriminate ban, though, will generate unnecessary stigma and fear.

Tufts students are smart. They are more than willing to make sacrifices in order to protect their health and the health of those around them. However, they also recognize nonsense. No one is expecting the concert choir to convene this semester, but exceptions should be made to allow students to sing in the privacy of their own rooms.