CDC updates guideline for schools, reducing desk spacing from 6 to 3 feet

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 19 March 2021 at 1:55 pm

Reducing that distance seen as key to bringing more students back for in-person learning, but needs state approval

Photo by Tom Rivers: This Holley classroom in the elementary school shows thin plastic barriers on the desks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The federal government today said desks could be spaced 3 feet apart, instead of 6 feet during the Covid pandemic. The new guidance from the CDC also says those barriers are no longer recommended.

The federal government today issued a much-anticipated update on guidance for schools with the distance between desks, physical barriers and other factors in the spread of Covid within schools.

Local schools opened this school year with desks at least 6 feet apart. That spacing reduced the number of kids allowed in classrooms and forced three of the five districts in Orleans County to do hybrid learning, alternating days for students to be in some classes.

Kendall and Lyndonville, the two smallest districts in the county, were able to space students out enough to be able to have students for in-person classes five days a week.

Holley was able to bring back students in grades K-2 this week for the first time without the hybrid schedule. Albion and Medina also want to bring students back for more in-person learning.

The change is desk spacing from a minimum of 6 feet to 3 feet will only districts to have more students in classrooms. Those students need to wear masks at all times, and teachers should try to stay 6 feet away from students, according to the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before a local district can act on the updated guidance from the CDC, the NYS Department of Health needs to accept that guidance. Then it’s up to each school district whether to accept the 3-foot minimum for spacing, said Paul Pettit, public health director in Genesee and Orleans counties.

He spoke with news reporters today before the CDC announcement. He said he would support the decision from the CDC. The local health department doesn’t have a say in the guidance for desk spacing.

“We don’t have the authority to approve,” he said. “It’s between the schools and the state. The schools need to follow the state guidelines. We support the change if it happens from the CDC.”

The CDC also updated guidance to no longer recommend plastic shields or other barriers between desks because there isn’t evidence showing those barriers are effective.

The CDC said the 6-foot distance should be maintained in common areas, such as school lobbies and in places where students can’t wear masks, such as when they are eating in the cafeteria. The 6-foot buffer should also remain in places with lots of talking, cheering or singing, where students could expel droplets containing the coronavirus. That includes chorus practice, assemblies and sports events.

“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said in a news release. “Safe in-person instruction gives our kids access to critical social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to succeed. These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”

Teachers union says ‘abrupt changes can undermine public trust and clarity’

The New York State United Teachers issued the following statement on the CDC social distancing guidance:

“Any educator will tell you the best way for students to learn is to be in person in the classroom. In a number of schools around New York, that has been done safely and successfully since September. For places that have older buildings, spacing limitations or other circumstances that make Covid-19 mitigation strategies challenging, decisions on how to bring students back to the classroom must be driven by science, not politics,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

“Abrupt changes can undermine public trust and clarity, and we would like to review in greater detail the science behind the CDC’s latest social distancing guidance. Yet it is clear social distancing is only one element of a nuanced and multifaced approach to Covid-19 mitigation in schools. Universal mask wearing, cleaning, proper ventilation, contact tracing, Covid-19 testing and getting the vaccine to everyone who wants one are all still important safety measures for schools. If anything, these other factors — especially the need for robust Covid-19 testing in schools — become more important as social distancing guidance changes.

“When it comes to changing local reopening plans, districts must continue to work with educators and parents to maintain confidence in the safety of their buildings. Those decisions must be based on the circumstances within each school and must carefully consider all aspects of a responsible Covid-19 mitigation strategy. As public health officials have rightly cautioned, in the face of new variants and a race to make vaccinations widely available, this is not the time to let down our guard.”

School Boards Association: New guidance will allow more students to be in school and not on remote learning

Robert Schneider, executive director of the NYS School Boards Association, issued this statement:

“Today’s announcement by the Centers for Disease Control, as well a similar announcement earlier this week by the World Health Organization, that 3 feet of separation between students in classrooms is sufficient to ensure their safety, rather than the previous guidance of 6 feet, offers greater flexibility for school districts to accommodate parents who want to see their children back in school.

The new CDC guidance, if adopted by New York State, would essentially double the number of students that could learn together in a single classroom and reduce their reliance on remote learning.

The problem is, the state Department of Health guidance still calls for 6 feet, in the absence of physical barriers in the classroom. As a result, school districts are getting mixed messages from our county, state and national health officials, causing confusion among school districts and educators over what they need to do to open safely. Without clear action from the state, this confusion will continue and there will still be a patchwork of different distancing requirements from county to county.

NYSSBA urges Gov. Cuomo and the state Health Department to consider adopting the 3-foot guideline in New York, or explain why they believe scientific evidence does not support such a change.

We have full confidence in our schools, which have proven they can keep children and staff safe in accordance with science.”