- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s abrupt decision to shrink the social-distance safety zone from 6 to 3 feet for schools is sparking immediate changes in New York City, which has the nation’s largest school district, and is giving President Biden and Democratic lawmakers across the county wiggle room to buck teachers unions.

The updated guidance, released Friday, says middle and high school students will need to stay 6 feet apart in some high-transmission areas, but the 3-foot guidance will generally apply to all students if masks are worn in the classroom.

“This obviously opens up a world of possibilities for bringing kids back,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing the opportunity for more parents to opt in to classroom learning at elementary schools in April.

The California Department of Public Health updated state guidance Saturday to “align with the latest science” and the CDC guidelines.

“CDPH’s quick response serves to mitigate potential confusion as schools throughout the state actively resume in-person instruction and plan for the summer and fall,” the agency said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the CDC guidance will help “those few straggler school systems who’ve been reluctant, or people that had difficulty in smaller, old schools, spacing kids properly.”

Teachers unions that have generally backed the Biden administration remain resistant. They say the CDC guidelines don’t account for all the ways the coronavirus might spread.

But the White House is under intense pressure from parents, Republicans and others to reopen schools as the vaccination plan unfolds and the nation attempts to resume normal activities.

Americans are familiar with the 6-foot “social distancing” rule, which was based on calculations from the 2003 SARS outbreak and modeling by William F. Wells in the 1930s that showed how tuberculosis spread through infectious respiratory droplets. The World Health Organization recommends 1 meter, or just over 3 feet. Others have said 6 feet might not be enough to prevent an aerosol spread of the virus.

The school debate accelerated last week, however, when a high-profile study from Massachusetts found similar rates of viral spread in mask-wearing schools that employed 3 feet of distance and those using the 6-foot rule.

“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “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 road map to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”

The CDC on Friday supported its new guidance with another study, which detailed evidence from Utah schools that transmission can be contained even if students wearing masks are seated less than 6 feet apart.

The closure of schools has been a flashpoint since Mr. Biden took office. There is widespread fear of long-lasting effects on children who have had to rely on virtual learning and miss the social development that in-person instruction provides.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, challenged Dr. Walensky at a Senate hearing last week about the long-term harm from remote learning and the emerging evidence that a 3-foot distance is safe.

“For too long, the CDC’s school reopening guidance was at odds with what numerous public health experts were recommending, preventing many students from being able to return to the classroom,” Ms. Collins said after the CDC changed course. “I am pleased that the CDC has finally caught up with the science on school reopenings and has released updated guidelines that reflect the evidence on classroom spacing. Once we are able to fully reopen our schools, we can reverse the alarming declines in academic achievement, literacy, and social and emotional health.”

The new guidance should pave the way for districts that lacked confidence in the 3-foot rule.

The Ridley School District in suburban Philadelphia retained the 6-foot rule while neighboring districts narrowed the distance to 3 feet, “and we’re not seeing the data really reflect a different spread rate,” the district’s superintendent told The Associated Press.

Other districts will likely stick to negotiated agreements with teachers unions. Seattle schools, for instance, have struck an agreement that provides half-day classes four days a week. The morning and afternoon cohorts allow them to avoid the lunch hour, when students would have to remove their masks.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times that she was “very concerned” about the new CDC guidance. She said it prioritizes convenience over safety.

“All of a sudden, because we can’t squeeze in every single kid if it’s 6 feet that miraculously there’s now studies that say 3 feet are fine. And what’s going to happen is, people are just not going to trust it,” she told the newspaper.

Another union, National Nurses United, said the new guidance didn’t take into account the potential spread of the virus beyond 6 feet via aerosols or differing ventilation systems in schools, especially in minority communities with fewer resources.

“This is another example of where social, political and economic pressure to send kids back to school as soon as possible is, unfortunately, driving public health decisions instead of science and reality,” NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said.

Dr. Walensky told reporters she had spoken with the unions about the change and suggested there wasn’t a wide rift.

“They know that we need to follow the science and make our guidance based on that science, and they’ve been very respectful of that,” she told reporters.

Mr. Biden’s team has touted a series of measures designed to boost confidence in getting children back into classrooms while navigating the thorny politics of school reopenings. The administration is touting funding for schools in the president’s massive American Rescue Plan, including $10 billion for testing protocols that can detect and disrupt chains of infection.

Mr. Biden has also urged states to prioritize the vaccination of teachers through the retail pharmacy program, which receives a tranche of shots each week.

The new CDC guidance says middle and high school students should remain 6 feet apart in communities where transmission remains high and must not engage in “cohorting,” a practice in which set groups of students and staff are kept together at all times to reduce the chance of viral spread throughout the school.

A CDC tracker said over 37% of U.S. counties fell into the high-transmission tier as of Sunday.

“Transmission dynamics are different in older students — that is, they are more likely to be exposed to [the coronavirus] and spread it than younger children,” the CDC said in a written statement.

Mr. de Blasio said the guidance “treats the younger grades differently than the older grades, so we are confident that we will be able in the course of April to bring back the younger students through an opt-in.”

The CDC says 6 feet of distance should be maintained between adults in the school and among all people in common areas such as lobbies and auditoriums.

Students and staff should stay 6 feet apart if they can’t wear masks, such as when eating, and transfer activities with “increased exhalation” — singing, sports or band practice — to outdoor or well-ventilated areas.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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