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CDC says students can be 3 feet apart, not 6; that doesn't mean local schools will change their plans
The Journal Times - 3/20/2021
Mar. 20—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidance, saying students can safely sit just 3 feet apart in the classroom as long as they mask up, but that doesn't mean local schools will be making any immediate changes.
Although the CDC continues to recommend 6 feet of distancing during sporting events, assemblies, while in common areas or hallways, or during lunch or chorus practice, the federal agency on Friday announced its relaxation of COVID-19 guidelines citing new research.
"For the time being, we are not changing our current practices," said Racine Unified spokeswoman Stacy Tapp. "We will review the new guidance in its entirety to determine if any changes will be made."
Racine Unified, which began to bring students who chose in-person learning back to buildings on March 1, has implemented a policy of 6 feet of distancing between students "to the greatest extent possible." The lack of a guarantee of 6 feet of distance irked Racine Educators United, Racine Unified's teacher's union, which also campaigned against a reopening of buildings prior to staff receiving vaccinations. However, protests haven't continued since school buildings reopened.
"I think it's important that we all still commit to being vigilant about safety," said Angelina Cruz, REU president. "While it's very encouraging that everything seems to be trending down, not just here but more widely, I think it's because we have been vigilant as a community."
As of Monday, more than 2,000 Racine Unified staffers, approximately two-thirds of its workers, had received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Prior to reopening school buildings to students, the district reported that it was set to distance students 6 feet apart in the majority of its classrooms, although a portion of class periods had too many students and classrooms too small to make that feasible.
Cruz said she was confident that district will continue to work with educators to ensure the safety of staff, students and their families.
Most Madison public schools — which are due to reopen next month, the second-to-last district in the state to let kids back into buildings — are planning to stick with their plans for 6 feet of social distancing.
Siena: COVID-free for a month
"We are happy to see the revised guidance from the CDC regarding the 3-foot social distancing for students in grades K-12," said Brenda White, president of Siena Catholic Schools of Racine. "The revised recommendations, along with face masks, routine sanitization practices, increased vaccines, and lower COVID-19 numbers, will allow us greater flexibility in how we can safely accommodate in-person learning for all students and staff."
Around 70% of Siena students are learning in-person, with the rest learning remotely. All of them are required to return to buildings April 12, after Easter Break.
"The science is working in our favor to support a return to normalcy for our students and staff," White said. "We have not had a single case of COVID-19 at any of our six Catholic schools since early February. Additionally, at least 65% of our educators have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. These are all positive signs for the health and well-being of our community."
Why the CDC changed its tune
In recent months, schools in some states have been disregarding the CDC guidelines, using 3 feet as their standard before the CDC's change. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force.
"We don't really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread," she said. Also, younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus and don't seem to spread it as much as adults do, and "that allows us that confidence that that 3 feet of physical distance is safe."
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the revised recommendations are a "roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction." She said in-person schooling gives students not only "the education they need to succeed" but access to crucial social and mental health services.
The new guidance also removes recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks. "We don't have a lot of evidence of their effectiveness" in preventing transmission, Massetti said.
Still, teachers and other adults should continue to stay 6 feet from one another and from students, the CDC said.
Unlike the CDC, over the past year, the World Health Organization has suggested 1 meter — a little over 3 feet — of distancing was sufficient in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says desks should be 3 feet apart and "ideally" 6 feet.
A recent study in Massachusetts looked at students and staff members in schools that used the 3-foot standard and those that had the 6-foot one. It found no significant difference in infection rates.
Regardless, the change at the CDC was met with skepticism in some quarters.
Cruz said she continues to have concerns with the idea of students being spaced only 3 feet apart as not much research has been done in urban school districts like Racine where buildings tend to be older and classrooms tend to be crowded.
Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, a professor of pediatrics and global urban public health at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said 3 feet is "probably safe" if schools are enforcing effective mask-wearing at all times, there is routine hand washing, and if ventilation is good. But he said that's unlikely for all factors to be perfectly accounted for.
Kleinman, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said "I will not send my child to a school that's distancing at 3 feet."
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