With the U.S. death toll from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic topping 541,000, the nation's two largest teachers unions responded cautiously on Friday to new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revising its recommendation for physical distancing between K-12 students in classrooms—who are all wearing face masks—down from six feet to just three feet, based on recent research.
"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 and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students."
—Becky Pringle, NEA"While we hope the CDC is right and these new studies convince the community that the most enduring safety standard of this pandemic—the six-foot rule—can be jettisoned if we all wear masks," said American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten, "we will reserve judgment until we review them, especially as they apply in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges."
National Education Association (NEA) president Becky Pringle said that "for the sake of public trust and clarity, we urge the CDC to provide far more detail about the rationale for the change from six feet to three feet for students in classrooms, clearly and publicly account for differences in types of school environments, new virus variants, differences in mitigation compliance, and how study participants were tested for the virus."
"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 and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students," Pringle explained.
"This is being driven by space concerns, not safety concerns. And when that happens, we have to see what it means."
— AFT (@AFTunion) March 19, 2021
The CDC now says that U.S. elementary school students should be at least three feet apart while in classrooms, as should middle and high schools students, except in areas of elevated community transmission, where the six-foot recommendation still applies for older students "if cohorting is not possible."
The agency further suggests maintaining the greater distance in common areas like lobbies and auditoriums, between teachers and staff at all times, when masks cannot be worn, and "during activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise."
Many schools across the country have operated with hybrid or fully remote instruction since the pandemic was declared last year. On the campaign trail and since taking office, President Joe Biden has made clear that alongside the rapid distribution of vaccines, a return to in-person learning for K-12 students is among his top priorities.
This is big. Could make the difference between many schools now reopening that couldn’t before. https://t.co/ps5tBaCZbs
— Aaron Kessler (@akesslerdc) March 19, 2021
Weingarten and Pringle pointed out that their unions have continuously called for providing schools with the resources necessary to safely return to classrooms.
"Kids need to be in school, and the AFT has advocated consistently for safely reopening in-person learning since last April, but we are concerned this change has been driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science on aerosol exposure and transmission," Weingarten said of the three-foot recommendation.
"Until today, the literature on reducing distancing has been inconclusive at best and misleading at worst. The studies so far have often approached distancing in a vacuum, without measuring the effect of changes to other mitigation strategies, including masking," she added. "We have asked the CDC to include urban and under-resourced districts in future studies, something it has not yet done."
Pringle noted that "at first glance, the change to three feet distance for students in classrooms will be particularly challenging for large urban school districts and those that have not yet had access to the resources necessary to fully implement the very Coivd-19 mitigation measures that the CDC says are essential to safe in-person instruction, no matter how far apart students in classrooms are."
"And while distancing is one important strategy," she said, "we must also continue to prioritize all mitigation strategies including vaccinations, wearing masks, hand-washing, healthy school buildings, and a system of testing, tracing, and quarantining."
"We welcome the push to provide for widespread testing and vaccination, and that all schools will have the funding they need to fully implement all of the mitigation measures consistently and with fidelity," the NEA leader added. "We are so close to being able to ensure that all our schools can be so much safer. But as public health officials have rightly cautioned, in the face of new variants and a race to make vaccinations widely available, this is not the time to let down our guard."
The CDC's updated recommendations for schools also included clarifications on ventilation and the role of community transmission levels in decision-making, the removal of a recommendation for physical barriers, and additional guidance on interventions when clusters occur. The changes came amid efforts to rapidly inoculate people nationwide with one of the three approved vaccines.
Earlier this month, as some states were declining to prioritize teachers for vaccines, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services directed (pdf) all coronavirus vaccination providers to "make available and administer, as one of the currently eligible groups, Covid-19 vaccine to those who work in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs (including teachers, staff, and bus drivers), and those who work as or for licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers."
Public health officials on Friday highlighted the importance of quickly getting shots into arms and continuing other mitigation strategies, from face masks and frequent hand-washing to "diagnostic testing with rapid and efficient contact tracing," in the words of CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
During a teleconference, Walensky also shared some details about the new studies that led to the three-foot suggestion and said she wanted to "emphasize that these recommendations are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask wearing."
“We are following the science,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, during a White House briefing on Friday. “We have seen the science to make sure this is safe for schools.” https://t.co/bsjQWcA2zd
— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) March 19, 2021
White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is also director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the event that "we're at a position right now where we have a plateauing at around 53,000 cases per day."
"The concern is that throughout the country, there are a number of ...regions that are pulling back on some of the mitigation methods that we've been talking about," added Fauci. "So it is unfortunate but not surprising to me that you are seeing increases in number of cases per day in areas—cities, states, or regions—even though vaccines are being distributed at a pretty good clip of two to three million per day."