Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some tea and it involves the Center For Disease Control and some new guidelines for indoor learning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for schools Friday, saying three feet of distance between students is sufficient for all elementary and most middle and high schools. The announcement came as CDC published new research that found limited coronavirus transmission in schools that require masks but not always six feet of distance, which had been the standard. That was true even in areas with high community spread of the virus.
The new guidelines represent a significant reversal from CDC guidance issued last month that schools maintain six feet of distance between people. To achieve that, the CDC said, schools in most of the country should hold off on fully reopening.
That put the CDC at odds with President Joe Biden, who has called on schools to fully reopen. Teachers unions opposed the change, and local unions may resist efforts to bring large numbers of students back into school buildings at one time. Many big districts have just recently begun to reopen for part time, in person school, and often after tense negotiations with teachers.
An increasing number of scientists have called for smaller distances in schools, claiming the risk must be weighed against growing examples of safe reopening and mounting evidence of mental health and academic harms to students who have been learning remotely for more than a year.
“Look, 100 feet is safer than six feet, which is safer than three feet,” former CDC director Tom Frieden said during a Washington Post Live interview this week. “Is three feet okay for most schools? Absolutely, if they mask, if they rapidly identify cases and isolate and quarantine.”
That argument was bolstered last week by a study, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, that found similar rates of spread in Massachusetts school districts that used a three feet minimum and in those that used six. Friday’s change comes after some state and local officials dropped the six-foot recommendation on their own. This week, for instance, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia said it would open four days a week in April, a change made possible by reducing the required distance from six to three feet.
New York City schools welcomed the news and said on Twitter that it would allow the district to “bring even more students back into buildings!” The district said it would offer a new opt-in opportunity for families next week.
The change is opposed by the country’s two large teachers unions, and it’s far from clear that teachers will go along. Ahead of the announcement, the unions argued that there is scant research about the impact of closer contact in urban schools, where buildings are older and classrooms more crowded. “We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
The agency says that even then, secondary schools can drop the standard to three feet, but only if they are able to keep students in cohorts, which limit interactions to a small group. That is difficult to do in middle and high school, where students typically break into different groups depending on the course. The CDC published three new studies Friday that appeared to augment the evidence that schools can operate safely, even where community spread is high, as long as masking and other measures are used.
Fifty one index, or primary, coronavirus cases were identified, and unlike in previous studies of school based transmission, the researchers tested all 735 people determined to be close school contacts of the initial 51 an important step in finding asymptomatic cases that can still transmit the virus. Researchers identified just five cases of in school transmission, a finding, they wrote, that “strengthens the evidence for low elementary transmission.”
The results, the authors concluded, suggest that even when students are spaced less than six feet apart, “schools in high-incidence communities can still limit in-school transmission by consistently using masks and implementing other important mitigation strategies.”A second study looked at in-school transmission over two December weeks in 55 K-12 schools in Saint Louis County and Springfield, Mo. Nearly all the schools implemented multiple mitigation measures: masking, ventilation upgrades and handwashing stations. But spacing between students varied, with many schools using a minimum of three feet. Although community spread was high during the period with more than 700 daily cases per 100,000 people researchers identified no school outbreaks and just two cases of in school spread. The third CDC study focused on coronavirus cases over four months among school aged children in Florida, which reopened the majority of schools in August even as most other states kept them closed. It found that youth cases were correlated with rates in the community and that school reopening did not appear to fuel the kinds of spread observed in some group residences or high density workplaces.