The reopening of K-12 public schools across the country has been a contentious discussion since the shift to online learning began because of the pandemic. Critics argue that kids need to be physically present in school to receive the benefits of a full education while others say safety is more important than physical schooling. A new study, published by the Clinical Infectious Diseases on March 10, has stirred the argument even further. The study suggests that public elementary schools may be allowed to reopen with a distance of three-feet in classrooms. The study specifically looked at schools in Massachusetts with the option to choose between a distance of six-feet or three-feet. Not surprisingly, participants did not see any substantial differences.
As of March 19, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) relaxed its physical distance guidelines for schools while recommending that students maintain a three-foot distance.
As recommended by the CDC, in public areas other than the classroom, the six-feet rule would still be enforced. This policy is still enforceable in common areas and during activities. Students and teachers should be kept in groups and social distancing should be maintained. In middle schools and high schools, the CDC advises six-feet of distance. The change from three-feet to six-feet allows for more free mobility and flexibility. Schools now have the capacity to teach more students in person. In addition, Utah, Missouri, and Florida recently opened with three-feet of distance. These three states helped persuade the CDC to lower its social distancing guidelines.
It is not surprising the CDC changed their guidelines after receiving pressure from Congress. On March 18, the director for the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, was asked about school guidelines during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) pressed Walensky and cited the increasing mental health crisis in the country with children not being physically present learning in schools. Walensky responded, “I understand the mental health issues, the education challenge, this is urgent don’t get me wrong…” Walensky added that the CDC was awaiting new evidence and research regarding a specific safe distance for kids within an educational setting.
While some parents celebrated the recent news, others were not convinced of how safe the new CDC guidelines were. The president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, sent a two-page letter to the Biden Administration questioning the new three-feet guidelines. In the letter, Weingarten states the following: “Our concern is that the cited studies do not identify the baseline mitigation strategies needed to support three-feet of physical distancing. Moreover, they were not conducted in our nation’s highest-density and least-resourced schools, which have poor ventilation, crowding and other structural challenges.”
Additionally, Weingarten mentions that the new guidelines present “immediate logistical questions.” How do these guidelines reasonably apply to teachers and school staff as well as people outside of this bubble? Weingarten requests that the U.S. Department of Education and the CDC release a list that states which strategies must be put in place while asking that “the CDC conduct comparative studies on mitigation efforts in urban, densely populated schools that do not have up-to-date ventilation systems and have been systematically under-resourced for decades.”
For individuals to be inside safely, the original distance was 10-feet including proper circulation. Now the new guidelines for K-12 schools maintain a reduction of seven-feet. Although evidence and the (aforementioned) Massachusetts study suggests that there is no clear difference between six-feet and three-feet, it can be easily assumed that neither of these numbers are a complete safe distance. Additionally, these safety numbers list proper circulation as well as proper ventilation while many public schools are underfunded and do not have the adequate resources to accommodate students during the pandemic.