By Laura Olson
NCAE calls on CDC to provide a more detailed explanation for the change
WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have revised their guidance to schools on how far apart students should be spaced in a classroom, now saying desks can be placed 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as schools across the country have faced increasing pressure to fully resume in-person classes after a year of virtual classes.
The Biden administration released guidance last month detailing five mitigation techniques that should be used to safely conduct in-person learning, including mask wearing, social distancing of at least 6 feet, frequent hand washing, proper cleaning of classroom surfaces and ventilation, and rapid testing.
Friday’s updated guidance says elementary schools can safely use a distance of 3 feet between desks in classrooms, so long as masks are worn and other safety precautions are taken.
Middle and high schools also can rely on the reduced distance in classrooms, unless they are in an area with high risk of community transmission of the virus.
Six feet of distance is still recommended between adults working in schools and between adults and students, as well as in common areas and at times when masks can’t be worn, such as while eating.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the new guidelines follow several studies showing the smaller distance requirement could be used safely.
“These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” Walensky said.
While the CDC had been recommending 6 feet of distance, other health organizations had suggested a smaller distance would be safe for students: The World Health Organization suggested a little more than 3 feet is sufficient in schools.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers and other school personnel, offered a skeptical statement in response to the new guidelines.
“While we hope the CDC is right and these new studies convince the community that the most enduring safety standard of this pandemic—the 6-foot rule—can be jettisoned if we all wear masks, we will reserve judgement until we review them, especially as they apply in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators offered a similar assessment. This is from a statement the group released this afternoon:
“From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NCAE has urged that we follow the science in determining how best to ensure the safety of students, families, and educators. With the CDC changing their guidance today around minimum social distancing in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet in elementary schools, we want to emphasize that 3 feet is an absolute minimum, not the ideal,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “The CDC continues to recommend keeping students and teachers in cohorts throughout the day, maintaining 6 feet of distance between those groups whenever possible, and continuing to strictly adhere to other safety protocols, including constant masking and vigilant hand washing in order to keep educators and students as safe as possible. In middle schools and high schools where community transmission is high, as it continues to be in many North Carolina counties, the CDC advises students stay 6 feet apart if cohorting is not possible.
“For the sake of public trust and clarity, we urge the CDC to provide far more detail about the rationale for the change from 6 feet to 3 feet for students in schools, clearly and publicly account for differences in types of school environments, new virus variants, differences in mitigation compliance, and how study participants were tested for the virus. We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students.”
Walensky said she has spoken with leaders from teachers unions: “They know that we need to follow the science and to make our guidance based on that science, and they’ve been very respectful of that.”