The teachers’ union is not persuaded that social distancing can be safely reduced to three feet. According to new school guidance published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most students only need to be spaced 3 feet apart in classrooms – less than half the 6 feet initially recommended by the agency to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
As the Biden administration encourages schools to reopen, the update could pave the way for more classes to return to in-person learning. For weeks, federal authorities have recognized that, despite an infusion of funding from the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, some school districts would be unable to fulfill the CDC’s February guidelines.
“This is an urgent issue. I understand the mental health challenges. I understand the educational challenge, the food insecurity. This is urgent,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified before a Senate committee on Thursday about the importance of reopening schools.
However, when students cannot be grouped into “cohorts,” students in middle and high schools “should be 6 feet apart” in communities of “high” transmission. The CDC defines a cohort or “pod” as “a discrete group that remains together during the entire school day during in-person learning.”
“These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” Dr. Walensky said.
According to Dr. Sophia Jan, division chief of general pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, the latest studies “offer pretty compelling evidence that if a school has their students stationed 3 feet apart, compared to those schools who have their students stationed 6 feet apart, there does not seem to be a big difference in the rate of new [COVID-19] cases.”
But teachers are not convinced of this.
On Tuesday, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union questioned the Biden administration’s decision to decrease the suggested social distancing in schools to three feet between students.
“We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements,” the letter said. “Our concern is that the cited studies do not identify the baseline mitigation strategies needed to support 3 feet of physical distancing.”
The scientific foundation of the social distancing research has also been called into question: “They were not conducted in our nation’s highest-density and least-resourced schools, which have poor ventilation, crowding and other structural challenges,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, said.
The teachers union also raised concerns about the practicality of the Biden administration’s recommendations, such as whether teachers could “remain in one spot at the front of the room the entire day” to comply with adult social distancing recommendations and whether social distancing recommendations extend to school buses as well.
Finally, the teachers’ union questioned the timeline for adopting these recommendations, stating that even with the American Rescue Plan’s $122 billion infusions into schools nationally, “districts lack the human resources and institutional planning ability to make improvements like this quickly.”
President Biden has a goal – to safely reopen “a majority of K-8 schools in 100 days,” which means by April 30.
The Biden administration has not yet set a target date for reopening high schools.
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