CDC classroom distancing guidance change opens door to more in-person school, local officials say

Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine in 2018
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Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine in 2018

It’s only three feet, but it could be the difference between schools fully reopening to in-person instruction or maintaining a complex mix of in-person and remote student schedules.

The federal Centers for Disease Control on Friday updated its health and safety guidelines for K-12 schools, lowering its recommendation for spacing students from six feet to three feet in most classroom situations. 

Some local superintendents on Friday said the change would enable them to more quickly increase in-person opportunities for students this school year and could make the difference in enabling a fully in-person start to a new school year in the fall. 

“It’s the lynchpin that is needed to get all students back in the fall,” Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said Friday, saying he was “thrilled” with news of the change.

Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Rich Ruberti, speaking shortly before the federal guidance was updated, said a change in the classroom distancing rules would make it possible for the district to ultimately welcome all students back in to school buildings. He said they would start to implement the new rules as soon as state officials gave the go ahead, enabling a speed up of current efforts to increase in-person instruction.

“If we could go to three feet, we would look to implement that this year, as soon as we could,” Ruberti said. “It would make a huge impact on our ability to accept more students in person.” 

The state Department of Health would still need to update its guidance for schools before district leaders felt comfortable moving forward with changes to how they spaced students in schools. Schools this year have operated under a six-foot distancing rule in classrooms, scrambling over the summer to measure every room and map out just how many students could fit in each space. The rules have long been considered a key limiting factor in how many students can return to school buildings, and recent research has called into question whether the health and safety gains of the extra three feet of space were worth the academic and social tradeoffs of more remote education.  

When pressed at a recent legislative budget hearing about lessening classroom distancing requirements, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the state would not recommend a three-foot rule counter to CDC recommendations. On Friday, Jill Montag, spokesperson for the state Department of Health said is “reviewing the new CDC guidance.”

The New York State School Boards Association within hours of the new federal guidance called on state officials to adopt the same, raising concerns about “mixed messages from our county, state and national health officials” that were “causing confusion among school district and educators over what they need to do to open safely.” 

“(The school boards association) urges Gov. Cuomo and the state Health Department to consider adopting the three-foot guideline in New York, or explain why they believe the scientific evidence does not support such a change,” Robert Schneider, executive director of the association, said in a statement. 

Bob Lowry, of the state Council of School Superintendents, said schools in the state operated under the state health guidelines and would need a formal change there to move forward with the plans under the new CDC recommendations. He said the distancing requirements have been seen by district leaders as one of the major chokepoints in increasing in-person instruction. 

“It’s widely seen as one of the primary obstacles to getting more kids in school more of the time,” Lowry said.

Large national teachers union organizations have criticized the CDC’s decision, suggesting the scientific evidence is not strong enough to support such a decision. And many families have continued to opt for fully remote models.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement Friday emphasized other important health measures — like wearing masks and good ventilation — and called on local leaders to involve educators in any decisions to alter school reopening plans. 

“Abrupt changes can undermine public trust and clarity, and we would like to review in greater detail the science behind the CDC’s latest social distancing guideline,” he said in the statement. “When it comes to changing local reopening plans, district must continue to work with educators and parents to maintain confidence in the safety of their buildings.”

But local school leaders argue few, if any, COVID-19 cases have been linked directly to exposure inside of a school. Local health officials have also said they do not think schools have been vectors of the virus.  

The logistical changes to facilitate more students in school buildings won’t happen overnight: districts will have to figure out how many students they can add to individual rooms, which students want to come back and how the changes impact complicated schedules and transportation routes. 

But Shine said the change is what he has been waiting to hear for much of the year.

“All my thoughts and energies are bent on having all of our students back for in-person learning, it is what keeps me up at night,” he said. “This is the first start of that shift.”

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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