HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – The CDC has changed its standard procedure for social distancing inside classrooms, going from six feet to three feet.
The agency published new research Friday showing the shorter distance had limited COVID-19 transmission in schools as long as everyone is wearing masks. The move could allow some school districts with less space to get more students inside classrooms and away from virtual learning.
Virginia Education Association (VEA) President Dr. James Fedderman said the new recommendations might not have much of an impact on many schools across the Commonwealth.
“I think it’s important to recognize that in some Virginia school systems, three feet is the norm they’re using,” said Dr. Fedderman.
Teachers want to be back in the classrooms, according to Dr. Fedderman, and he said the VEA will continue to ensure health and safety are top of mind.
“Let’s be clear - many educators are still very fearful of returning to in-person learning. Even with being vaccinated, they want to ensure the health and safety of their students, and that of themselves is being made a priority,” he said. “There’s still some hesitancy, but educators are not going to stop working. We’re confident the mitigation strategies that are in place; with three feet or six feet, educators will still be able to do their jobs and to do them effectively.”
Since last month, elementary students at Isle of Wight County Schools have been learning in person five days a week under the shorter distance guidance. The district is finding three feet is just as safe as six.
“It’s been very successful,” said IWCS Director of Community & Media Relations Lynn Briggs. “We have not seen any classroom spread of the virus since we’ve had students return.”
Other public schools, including districts in Gloucester, Hampton, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, are either already using the three-feet guideline or are moving toward it as they begin to bring back more students.
Gloucester County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Walter Clemons said by mid-April, the district will increase in-person learning to four days a week. In the fall, the district installed updated air filtration systems as an added measure of protection.
“We recognize in order to bring more students back, you have to be, in some instances, less than six feet of distance,” said Dr. Clemons. “When six feet can’t be maintained, three feet can be done with masks, but masks are mandatory in all buildings.”
Hampton City Schools Executive Director of Public Relations and Marketing Kellie Goral sent a statement on its procedure:
“Hampton City Schools established protocols have been six (6) feet of physical distancing to the greatest extent possible. However, we recognized six (6) feet may not be maintained at all times and in all situations. In those situations, the school division has continued to support a minimum distance of three (3) feet of physical distance as directed by American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.
“In regard to today's announcement from CDC, we plan to review the details of their recommendations. If we deem our processes and procedures may be modified in some situations, we will communicate any changes to our schools and families accordingly.”
Virginia Beach City Public Schools PR Coordinator Sondra Woodward said, “VBCPS has already been requiring at least 3 feet of distancing in our classrooms, so we do not anticipate any changes in our safety plan at this time. Adjustments to our mitigations would be made in consultation with our health experts and the School Board.”
A spokesperson for Chesapeake Public Schools said, “We have used the three-feet guideline in accordance with guidance from the VDH, AAP, and the VDOE since September of this school year. This change by the contemplated change by CDC would have no impact on our current operations.”
Portsmouth Public Schools, however, is playing it safe.
Spokesperson Lauren Nolasco said once elementary students return April 12, it’ll follow six feet of social distancing. She said the district will reassess afterward to see if any changes need to be made.
In the meantime, the new recommendations are encouraging for Isle of Wight as the school district weighs the possibility of moving middle and high school students from hybrid learning to more in-person learning.
“Our mitigation measures have been very effective in keeping cases from spreading in the school,” Briggs said. “We know we’re going to have students and staff test positive, but our main goal has been limiting any of the spread from those positive cases to other individuals.”
The CDC recommends students should still remain at least six feet from one another while eating and during other activities when masks cannot be worn.