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CDC Says Schools Can Now Space Students 3 Feet Apart, Rather Than 6

Students eat lunch at Castle Hills Elementary in San Antonio's North East school district Jan. 17, 2020.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance for schools. On Friday, the agency announced it "now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings."

Previously the guidance stated, "Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible." The new guidelines still call for 6 feet of distance between adults and students as well as in common areas, such as auditoriums, and when masks are off, such as while eating. And the 6-foot distancing rule still applies for the general public in settings such as grocery stores.

The change is momentous because in many places around the country, the 6-foot guidance has been interpreted as requiring schools to operate on part-time or hybrid schedules to reduce class sizes. A 3-foot rule would allow many more schools to open in person full time.

The revision was spurred by some new research, including a study published March 10 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, which looked at schools in Massachusetts, where districts were given a choice of distancing students either 6 or 3 feet apart, and where the majority of districts also required universal masking. The study included more than a half-million students who attended school in person last fall.

"We didn't see any substantial difference in cases among students or staff in districts with 3 feet versus 6 feet, suggesting that we can open the schools safely at 3 feet, provided that some of the mitigation measures that were present here in Massachusetts are in place," said Westyn Branch-Elliman, a co-author of the study and an infectious diseases specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Our study adds to a growing body of worldwide data about the safety of 3 feet in school settings."

The World Health Organization already recommended that schools distance children 1 meter apart (3.3 feet). The American Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, has been warning that "in many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without drastically limiting the number of students." As a result, the group has advised flexibility, telling school leaders to "weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative."

Texas and San Antonio

Texas’s rules on in-person instruction limited schools’ ability to maintain social distancing even before the new guidance.

Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association said he’s worried the change will encourage districts to be less diligent.

“We fear that many school districts already are lax in enforcing social distancing," he said. "Which is why we really think at least wear a mask. At least require your staff and your students to wear a mask in your schools.”

Robison said TSTA surveyed its 65,000 members in the fall and found 600 violations of social distancing.

“If there were 600 and some odd violations of social distancing back in the fall when there were fewer kids in classrooms, we fear that there may probably be more violations of it right now,” he added.

Robison said the new guidance makes it more critical for schools to require masks.

The CDC guidance is based on the assumption that masks will be worn. TSTA wants Gov. Greg Abbott to reinstate the mask mandate for schools across the state.

Some school districts in the San Antonio area reacted to Friday's announcement:

San Antonio ISD: "This news should give all of us hope. In-person learning is critical to students’ academic and socioemotional growth. We welcome this clarity from the CDC. It gives superintendents across the country the operational ability to get children safely back into the classroom for the face-to-face instruction and supports they so urgently need."

Northside ISD: "NISD will continue to practice safe distancing on our campuses and facilities as we have been doing since students began returning. The CDC's amended recommendation for physical distancing will allow us to continue our efforts to safely bring back more students for in-person learning."

Alamo Heights ISD: "Alamo Heights ISD is continuing with our current protocols with regard to Covid-19 mitigation."

North East ISD: "We will take some time to review the guidance and see if any guidelines for our schools will change. As you know, any and all NEISD students who want to learn in-person have been allowed to return to classrooms for many months now. Therefore, many schools haven’t been able to maintain six feet of distance. All students are required to wear masks and we have seen no correlation to COVID numbers depending on whether there are more or fewer students in a particular classroom."

Comal ISD is the only district in the San Antonio area that’s lifted its mask mandate.

Districts with lower rates of in-person attendance, like SAISD, may be able to use the new guidance to encourage more families to send their kids back to campus.

About 30% of U.S. students attend schools that have adopted part-time or hybrid schedules, according to the organization Burbio. These schedules can have children attending in person for as few as five days every three weeks. While at home, depending on school staffing, they may be joining in-person classes by video, or they may be completing packets of homework or online assignments without live support.

In Dallas, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said his high schools' hybrid schedule has reduced student engagement. "They're in school Monday, Tuesday. Then nobody's there on Wednesday, then another group's there on Thursday and Friday. And so our participation level has been very low," Hinojosa said. "Hopefully, with the new CDC guidelines of 3 feet, we can get more kids in there."

'More concerned'

Parent surveys suggest hybrid models can be the worst of both worlds. In a recent NPR/Ipsos poll of parents, those with children enrolled in hybrid learning were the most likely to feel worried that their child will be behind when the pandemic is over (62% agreed versus 50% of those attending remote, and 37% attending fully in person). They were also most likely, by a wide margin, to believe that the pandemic has disrupted their child's education.

Similarly, a new national survey of parents from the group ParentsTogether found that, compared with parents of students attending either fully remote or full time in person, "Parents of kids doing blended learning are more concerned about their kids' mental health, more concerned about them falling behind, more concerned about them not getting enough instructional support, more concerned about them getting bad grades, failing, or not finishing," ParentsTogether co-founder Justin Ruben said.

For example, in the survey, 62% of respondents with students in the hybrid model said their child's mental health had gotten worse since the pandemic started, compared with about half of parents with students in the other two models.

On Friday, the CDC also released the results of a parent survey showing that, when children were in blended models, parents reported their children had less physical activity, less time outside, less time with their friends and worse mental and emotional health, compared with students attending school five days a week.

And teachers, too, report lots of stress with hybrid models. In December, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called for the model to be phased out. "Hybrid doesn't work," she said. "You can't livestream and teach in person at the same time."

TPR's Camille Phillips contributed to this story.