Teachers union ‘not convinced’ on CDC guidance to reduce classroom spacing

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The nation’s second-largest teachers union on Tuesday questioned the Biden administration’s decision to reduce the recommended distance between students in a classroom from 6 feet to 3 feet.

In a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) pressed for additional recommendations on mitigation measures like ventilation, testing and effective cleaning.

“We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time. Our concern is that the cited studies do not identify the baseline mitigation strategies needed to support 3 feet of physical distancing,” AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote.

Specifically, Weingarten said any shift from 6 feet to 3 feet must be accompanied by universal and correct masking; effective ventilation; thorough cleaning of buildings; regular COVID-19 testing of teachers, staff and students; effective contact tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols; and the availability of vaccines to all people in schools who are eligible.

Weingarten also asked the agencies for clarification on when the guidance should be implemented, noting that many school systems are just returning to in-person instruction and may not have planned on the shift in distancing recommendations.

Last week, the CDC updated its guidance on schools to suggest students can maintain a distance of 3 feet or more in classroom settings so long as there is universal masking. The agency based its recommendation on a growing body of research that showed in-person learning could be done safely for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial.

Previously, the agency had recommended that schools keep students 6 feet apart except at the lowest levels of community transmission. But for many schools, keeping students that distance is not feasible, and was a major obstacle to bringing students back for full-time instruction. 

In some states, the teachers unions had used these distancing guidelines to oppose returning to in-person teaching.  

AFT and the National Education Association last week expressed skepticism about the science behind the decision, and both unions said they were concerned about the impact on urban schools.

“Weakening one layer of layered mitigation demands that the other layers must be strengthened,” Weingarten wrote Tuesday. “We strongly urge you, in any discussion of this shift, to forcefully insist on strict and strengthened adherence to the other mitigation strategies.”

The CDC guidance puts an emphasis on air flow and ventilation in school buildings, saying it is an important component of maintaining a safe environment. And while experts agree ventilation is important, many have said it shouldn’t be a barrier for bringing children back into the classroom.

Daniel Benjamin, a Duke University pediatric disease expert who co-authored a prominent study on coronavirus transmission in North Carolina schools, said ventilation is not nearly as important as proper masking.

“The revamping of ventilation has not been shown to be helpful to prevent transmission. So it’s masking far and away, number one, then some distance, and then hand-washing,” he said, so long as schools take extra precaution around lunchtime.

“Time without masks should be limited. Schools should not be playing around with lunch,” Benjamin said.

Tags Coronavirus covid-19 restrictions Miguel Cardona physical distancing Rochelle Walensky schools teachers unions

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