State DOH adopts latest CDC distancing guidelines for New York schools

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New York schools are now operating under the most recent federal public health guidelines for K-12 schools, potentially opening the door to more in-person instruction.

The guidelines – which the federal Centers for Disease Control updated last month and the state Department of Health adopted Friday – enable less social distancing in classrooms than the rules outlined for the start of the school year. But the rules also differ from district to district, depending on local COVID-19 transmission levels and the extent of student grouping within a building.

The new distancing guidelines allow schools to separate students in classrooms by three feet – down from the original six feet – but the lower distancing requirements are not suggested for middle and high schools in counties with a high transmission risk and an inability to group students into cohorts that don’t change.

Cohorting students means that students are separated into groups that don’t change from day-to-day and don’t interact with other groups of students, thereby minimizing the number of potential exposures.

The rules, though, allow elementary schools in counties with a high risk of transmission, according to CDC metrics, to reduce student distancing to three feet. Student cohorting is still recommended in that situation. The changes could enable districts to bring more students back to school in person more often, fitting more students into each classroom.

Every county in the Capital Region, and most across the state, are considered to have a high risk of transmission, under the CDC metrics. This limits local districts to alter distancing requirements at the middle and high school level if they have not been carefully separating those students into cohorts.

Health experts have found that the risk of virus transmission is lower among younger students and increases with age.

“Evidence indicates that there is lower susceptibility and incidence of COVID-19 among younger children than compared to teenagers; therefore, in-person instruction represents less risk of on-site transmission in elementary schools compared to middle and high schools,” according to the state guidance.

But cohorting students is more challenging at the high school level, where students take a wider variety of courses and have more options in what classes they pursue.   

“In middle and high schools three feet between students in classrooms is recommended only when schools can use cohorting,” according to the guidelines. “When schools cannot maintain cohorting, middle and high schools must maintain distancing of at least six feet between students in classrooms.” 

The updated rules still limit many other interactions to distancing of six feet or more, including distancing among adults and between adults and students, as well as in hallways and during meals.

The guidelines also call on district leaders to solicit community input before changing distancing rules within their schools. District leaders “must include opportunities for feedback from parents, community members, teachers, staff and local departments of health” at a meeting held prior to implementing any changes to physical distancing requirements within any schools.

“Ultimately, the school/district’s decision to move to shorter physical distances will come down to a local community’s risk tolerance based on its unique circumstances,” according to the new state rules.

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