For the National Circus School (ENC), as well as all circus schools around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic represents an exceptional challenge, one for which there are no preconfigured guidelines that can dictate appropriate responses. As Dr. Caroline Quach, a researcher from Quebec, said: ‘’Fighting COVID-19 is like building the plane while you’re flying it’’. This statement certainly applies to circus schools all around the world. At ENC, the decision to reopen the school and the question as to how to reopen the school was guided by a risk-based approach to maximize the education, well-being and health benefits for our students, teachers, staff, and thus, the wider circus community.
The Circus Health and Safety Committee
It all began with the establishment of an internal committee on April 29 at ENC. Marie-Pier Rousseau, Human Resources Advisor, and Christine Thibaudeau, Director of Technical Services and Production, managed the new Circus Health and Safety Committee throughout the crisis. Said committee was divided into three subcommittees: development committee, equipment committee, and support partners. Each subcommittee being composed of representatives from the School’s various departments (technical, teachers, communication and administrative).
My role within this group as a researcher from the Center for Circus Arts Research, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer (CRITAC) was, and is still today, to provide an evidence-based decision-making process built on a fast-evolving scientific literature about COVID-19. The goal of this committee was and remains to advise, support, promote and assess measures to ensure the health and safety of our different communities as classes start anew.
During the confinement, a well-being committee commissioned by the executive management was also formed using a combination of ENC and CRITAC staff to deploy an interventional program building on the socio-ecological model of resilience and stress process model principles. May it be through group webinars, small group information sessions, one-on-one Zoom meetings and the distribution of electronic educational materials, the program provided psychological, physical, social, technical, artistic, and creative supports.
As detailed by CRITAC’s Director, Patrice Aubertin: “We, at the CRITAC, rapidly deployed our expertise in human performance and resilience to further assist the work done by Marion in helping ENC in the development of a timely and effective internal support system.”
The Link with Agencies and External Organizations
ENC provides a variety of professional programs of different levels (high school/collegial studies), a teacher training and recreational activities, all of which depend on different agencies and external organizations. Christine Thibaudeau explained: ‘’It is a challenge to follow the different guidelines from the different organizations and instances. For example, measures applicable for high school classes depend on the Ministry of Education and they aren’t the same as the guidelines provided for the higher education.’’
The first agency to follow is obviously the Direction de santé publique (public health branch), then there is the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (Occupational Health and Safety Committee) for the employees. ENC is also a member of the Association des collèges privés du Québec (private colleges association in Quebec), the Association des écoles supérieures d’art du Québec (art school association in Quebec), the Fédération des établissements d’enseignement privés (private educational institution federation) and the Fédération européenne des écoles de cirque professionnelles (FEDEC).
ENC is one of a kind in Quebec, being one of the only artistic and professional school dedicated to circus arts. Christine added: ‘’we are experts in our field (circus arts), we established our own protocol and we worked collectively’’. En Piste, the National Circus Arts Alliance, also started its own committee and worked together with many professionals: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize, Les 7 doigts, École de cirque de Québec, TOHU and ENC. ENC also had ties with sports federations (Gym Québec, Gymnyx) and other circus schools part of FEDEC (CNAC for example).
The evidence thus far pointed us to four mitigation strategies for reopening: entry and exit control system, social distancing, personal protective equipment and disinfection. The general strategy is based on the following points:
- 4 cohorts of 25-30 students (high school and collegial studies) that remain isolated from each other. Each group goes to school at different time of the day. Cohorts can reduce person-to-person contact and can facilitate contact tracing if outbreaks occur.
- A one-way traffic into the school to avoid encounters.
- To reduce travel or prolonged presence at the school.
- To limit to essential activities.
- Supervision of procedures.
- Process of continual improvement: assessment, logbook, scientific watch, update and communication.
- Temperature check and questionnaire at the entry and exit.
- Mask wearing at all times for all activities (since mid-September). It must be changed often and as soon as it’s wet.
- Remote work for the staff that don’t need to be at ENC
- All academic courses are online (except for high school).
- Specific area per discipline based on aerial projection of droplets.
- Keeping the studios and common space clean.
- Ventilation is inspected and cleaned regularly.
The Practice of Circus
The following practices are excluded: dynamic lines in dance and acrobatics, power track, foam pits, larger group training such as banquine, passing in group in juggling, group cycling. Specific conditions and disinfection procedures are required for each circus discipline (Table 1 and 2).
En Piste made available the COVID-19 Physical distancing recommendations for the practice of circus disciplines and Risk assessment for the teaching of circus disciplines written by ENC’s Circus Health and Safety Committee: https://enpiste.qc.ca/medias/files/Documents%20h%C3%A9berg%C3%A9s/Protocoles%20sanitaire/ENC_Recommendations%20Practice%20of%20circus_24june2020_EN.pdf
Table 1: Specific conditions for each activity
|Trampoline||Only with designated students|
Hand washing before and after each series of exercise
Avoid taking turn
Mask wearing while waiting
|Individual circus discipline||With social distancing and disinfection|
Individual equipment for each student, the student is responsible of his equipment
Only the student can touch his/her equipment
For dynamic and high discipline, the teacher should wear glasses or a face shield
|Duo & trio (hand to hand, trapeze, teeterboard, …)||Only if students consent|
Movements evaluation and adaptation test for mask-wearing
Exchange of partners not allowed
|Russian bar||The bar should be used by the same persons at the same position|
|Passing in juggling||Only in duo with a mask|
|Spotting||Manual spotting should be used as a last resort and especially for safety reasons|
The teachers should use other learning mechanisms (progression, harness system) before using hands
If spotting is inevitable: short time, frequent hand washing, mask for the student, mask and glasses or vizor for the teacher
Ask the student if he/she is comfortable with it
|Dance||No diagonal or fast travel|
Each student should remain in its zone
The dance bar should be disinfected at the end of the class
The floor should be washed during group change
|Singing||A maximum of 4 students can be in the room|
Work zones for each student are as far away as possible
The teacher remains behind a plexi frame and wears a mask
For the voice or sound exercise, the student should do the exercise behind a plexi frame
Student with mask
Group exercise should be done face to the wall and with a mask
Chair, balloon or other furniture should be disinfected at the end of the class
Sound console and piano are only touched by the teacher who has to wash his/her hands before and after
|Acting||Minimal safe distance between individuals is 2 m|
The waiting zone and acting zone are at minimal distance of 3 m
Costumes and accessories should be reduced as far as possible
Wig and mask for acting are not allowed
No sharing of accessories
Costumes and accessories should be placed into quarantine for 48 h after use
Only accessories that can be washed easily (wood, metal, plastic, smooth surface) are allowed, washed after use, identified and stored into the room
The accessories should be washed by the student that used them
|Physical training, flexibility, yoga and contortion||Individual small mats for each student, students have to disinfect the mat at the end of the class|
All apparatus should remain in their designed location
Only two balloons are available and can’t be used for other means
Apparatus, espalier, mattress, stations, accessories and objects can’t be shared during the training session
At each training session, users should wash their hands and the apparatus, espalier, mattress, stations, accessories or objects
Elastic band can’t be shared, ENC sells elastic band
|Creation||All rules above apply|
Table 2: Disinfection procedures of equipment
|All equipment||Hard and smooth surface (wood, metal, plastic, PVC and vinyl) can be washed by disinfectant with alcohol (spray) or dry steam|
Porous surface (carpet or fabric) are disinfected by steam
Hanging system/device and the sandbag should be disinfected before and after use by the student
Teachers supervise the procedures of disinfection of the students
Riggers supervise the entire procedures
|Mattress and mats||Mattresses, pits and mats should not be used for rest|
Mattresses in vinyl should be disinfected after use by disinfectant with alcohol (spray) or dry steam
The reception pit (Bertha) should be disinfected by dry steam only or covered by a vinyl mat
|Hanging system||The hanging system or the safety belt (rope system with pulleys) are shared|
Cords can’t be disinfected, so the user should wash their hands before and after each use
The handle is disinfected after use, to do so, the cord should be removed from the handle
The scientific community is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by learning more about how the disease spreads and affects people, and more importantly, how to cure people. A torrent of new scientific papers about the disease are published every day, which makes it hard to keep pace with. Rigor in science requires time and a lot of evidence, which explains the feeling that information is changing constantly during this pandemic. Many articles don’t go under a peer-review process before the research is published in academic journals, so there is quantity but not necessarily quality. My work consisted to answer specific questions by reading scientific articles and figuring out if it applies to our situation and what are the limitations. Here are two examples of questions I answered :
- How does transmission occur?
Transmission of COVID-19 occurs primarily via respiratory droplets from face-to-face contact and, to a lesser degree, via contaminated surfaces1. It is most likely that an aerosol-mediated transmission exists since the particles would remain in the air longer than the droplets2. Researchers have shown that the coronavirus can be inactivated within a minute by disinfecting surfaces with disinfectants containing 70% alcohol3.
- Is the mask effective?
There is now strong evidence supporting the efficacy of masks from observational studies to modeling studies, including cloth masks in all settings where distancing is not possible4. Two recommendations for athletes: wash the mask regularly with soap and water if using cloth mask or change regularly if using of a surgical mask, and always have an extra mask at hand once the original one is saturated with moisture.
Evolution of the Procedures
First, ENC reopened during summer for three weeks in order to test the procedures with the graduating students of the professional program. The conclusion of this test was good: the staff and the students felt safe. However, there were not a lot of people during this test, so there were still doubt for back to school.
School started again on July 31st, 2020. Teachers, staff and students received presentations and documents available about the safety procedures. Students from abroad had to follow a period of quarantine before the beginning of the school year. According to Christine, ‘’the major challenge for the educational department was to adapt the schedule structure to four distinctive blocks dividing the students into cohorts. The goal was to make sure the different cohorts do not meet each other while maintaining enough training hours for each group. For circus artists and students training, there is never enough training time!’’
ENC experienced only one case of a student infected by the COVID-19 mid-September. The Direction de santé publique (public health branch) intervened, investigated if there were close contacts for more than 15 minutes or not with people and only one teacher had to be put in quarantine after their investigation.
Each step or event has made the protocol evolve. For example, after the confirmed case, the committee decided to make the mask mandatory for students even in training. This was also adopted because 70% of students had already chosen to wear masks. We had enough evidence that wearing a mask is not an obstacle to training and performing circus activities. As requested by En Piste, a meeting with the Ministry of Public Health and the Occupational Health and Safety Committee was held with the committee formed by En Piste at the end of September. During this meeting, the agencies allowed to start circus activities involving 2, 3 or 4 people with masks, among other guidelines.
Another example may concern the singing and acting classes. As it involves a lot of voice and thus droplets, it may become online. The committee responds to the parent’s and student’s concerns but, more importantly, listens to the staff’s comments and the students in order to reevaluate the safety protocol. Christine said: ‘’The doubt is constant. Is it too much? Is it not enough? I think it also depends on the psychological acclimatization to the procedures.’’ Since the beginning of the school year, the committee reported that there was no unresponsive behavior, which is positive.
The establishment of this new protocol which allowed the reopening of the school is the result of the work of several people over a few months. ENC’s plan to reopen was ready when school began in September. Little research has been done so far on the practice of circus arts in a pandemic context. This case study has many implications for any circus professionals who must implement a COVID-19 protocol in circus arts. ENC, amongst other organizations, should act as an international leader on safety protocols for the benefit of circus industry. It is important for ENC to study and disseminate best practices.
The executive director of ENC Eric Langlois said, ‘’Beyond the risk management, the pandemic required managing the idea of relevance and quality drops as to our teaching programs. The preventive measures that we put in place significaantly impacted our ways of executing our various tasks. Our pedagogical team had to adapt the teaching and our students had to deal with this new reality. Psychosocial support to our community is essential given that our approach is not perfect. We think that such support is just as important as the preventive measures for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Fortunately, ENC relies on experts and important resources to properly handle the current situation. The operational, financial and human impact of the pandemic is huge for organizations in our field. My special thoughts and respect go to our many colleagues, teachers, managers and leaders of circus schools around the globe.’’
- Vella, F., Senia, P., Ceccarelli, M., Vitale, E., Maltezou, H., Taibi, R., … & Nunnari, G. (2020). Transmission mode associated with coronavirus disease 2019: a review. Health, 1, 2.
- Doremalen, N. (2020). Aerosol and surface stability of SARS‐ CoV‐2 as compared with SARS‐CoV‐1.N Engl J Med, 382,1564-1567.
- Hussain, A., Kaler, J., Tabrez, E., Tabrez, S., & Tabrez, S. S. (2020). Novel COVID-19: A comprehensive review of transmission, manifestation, and pathogenesis. Cureus, 12(5).
- Edelstein, P., & Ramakrishnan, L. (2020), Report on Face Masks for the General Public – An Update. DELVE Addendum MAS-TD1. Published 07 July 2020. Available from http://rs-delve.github.io/addenda/2020/07/07/masks-update.html.