CDC changes school guidance allowing desks to be closer; California teachers union skeptical

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its social distancing guidelines for schools Friday, saying students can now sit 3 feet apart in classrooms, providing a path to allow more schools to open in-person but also making some California teachers' unions wary of the change. 

The revised COVID-19 recommendations represent a turn away from the 6-foot standard that has forced some schools to remove desks, stagger scheduling and take other steps to keep children away from one another.

"It's great that the CDC changed the recommendations because now we should be able to get children back in classrooms, full-time, non-hybrid, K-12 learning," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor at UCSF. "From Wisconsin, from Massachusetts, it's been shown that with other mitigation procedures, like masking, that 3 feet of distance are just fine in terms of safety."

Gandhi's research, along with other colleagues, on this topic, was widely cited in Congressional testimony earlier this week. 

Leaders of two national teachers unions were skeptical of the change.

Toby E. Boyd, president of the California Teacher's Association, sent KTVU a statement saying that the move to 3 feet "will be among myriad challenges for our large urban school districts."

Boyd stressed that schools "must follow through on implementing all safety measures including vaccinations, wearing masks, hand washing, sanitization, adequate ventilation and testing and tracing."

"We can’t let our guard down now," Boyd continued. "Using these safety protocols, we can regain the confidence needed to teach and learn in classrooms. Additionally, public health officials have rightly cautioned, the new variants are a concern."

In recent months, schools in some states have been disregarding the CDC guidelines, using 3 feet as their standard. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force.

While there is evidence of improved mental health and other benefits from in-person schooling, "we don't really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread," she said.

Also, younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus and don't seem to spread it as much as adults do, and "that allows us that confidence that that 3 feet of physical distance is safe," Massetti said.

The new guidance:

— Removes recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks. "We don't have a lot of evidence of their effectiveness" in preventing transmission, Massetti said.

— Advises at least 3 feet of space between desks in elementary schools, even in towns and cities where community spread is high, so long as students and teachers wear masks and take other precautions.

— Says spacing can also be 3 feet in middle and high schools, so long as there's not a high level of spread in the community. If there is, spacing should be at least 6 feet.

The CDC said 6 feet of distance should still be maintained in common areas, such as school lobbies, and when masks can't be worn, such as when eating.

Also, students should continue to be spaced 6 feet apart in situations where there are a lot of people talking, cheering or singing, all of which can spread droplets containing the coronavirus. That includes chorus practice, assemblies and sports events.

The CDC said teachers and other adults should stay 6 feet from one another and from students.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the revised recommendations are an "evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction."

"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," she said in a statement.

Last year, the CDC advised that one way for schools to operate safely was by keeping children 6 feet apart, the same standard applied to workplaces and other settings.

In contrast, the World Health Organization suggested 1 meter — a little over 3 feet — was sufficient in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to desks should be spaced 3 feet apart and "ideally" 6 feet.

The CDC guidance was problematic for many schools that traditionally had 25, 30 or more children per classroom in closely grouped desks. Some schools adopted complicated, hybrid scheduling, that might, for example, have half a class come to school on some days and the other half on other days.

Jane Burke, superintendent for the Marin County Office of Education, said that the closer-desk rule is a game-changer. The 3-foot rule means that all 116 schools in her county, private and public, could begin to offer full-time school in person by the end of the year, if they choose. 

Marin County data shows that there have been more than 1.3 million student days of school with only 11 suspected in-school transmissions, with none of them from student to adult, she said. 

"So, we have data that shows if we follow the basic protocols that everybody can be safe," Burke said. "You can't convince people. You have to show the way."

AP Mike Stobbe contributed to this report.