Proponents of reopening schools received a major boost when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that elementary school students and some middle and high school students could be spaced three meters apart in classrooms.
The previous guidance to keep most students six meters apart has become a major obstacle in many school districts to welcome students back for full-time tuition because it severely limited capacity. Many experts now believe that growing research shows that six feet is not much more protective than three, as long as other safety measures are in place, such as wearing a mask.
Public health experts, parents and school officials welcomed the new recommendation. Teacher unions, which used the six-foot guidelines to resist bringing children back to normal schedules, did not do so.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest union for educators, said in a statement that she would express her ‘judgment’ on the new guidelines pending further review of research on how the virus affects schools act, especially those in cities or who do not have enough resources. Becky Pringle, president of the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, has expressed similar concern.
Nevertheless, the new leadership seems to have an immediate impact in some places. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, announced Friday that it will once again give families a chance to choose personalized education for their children. The city said elementary schools, kindergarten programs and programs for children with complex disabilities would move to three-foot distance in April, while reviewing distance rules for middle and high school students.
In Texas, Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, called the new leadership “a game changer.” When he weighed when and how more students should be brought back to classrooms in his district, he added, “My biggest hesitation was the requirements for social distance.”
In Anne Arundel County, Md., Where schools are now only reopening for students to attend two days a week, the president of the Board of Education said the new leadership will make it easier for the district to achieve the superintendent’s goal of students. a schedule of four days a week before the end of the year.
“It was a real challenge to be able to bring students back four days with a distance requirement of six feet,” said board chair Melissa Ellis.
However, there was ample evidence that the new leadership would not be enough to push some districts, especially on the West Coast, to soon return to something like a normal school week. Concerns from teacher unions seem to be putting some districts under pressure to delay the return of classrooms to greater density.
In Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest system, district and union leaders agreed this month to allow students to return to classrooms after April for a mix of personal and distance education.
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Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district will not change its reopening plans in response to the new leadership. Many of the families of the district, who are predominantly low-income, Black and Latino, said they are likely to continue with overall learning.
Even with the new leadership, many issues regarding the way schools will handle their reopening remain controversial and unresolved.
Although the CDC still recommends 6 meters distance when children eat, the fact that students have to remove their masks during lunch has expressed concern for educators and their unions. Seattle, for example, plans to reopen primary schools in the coming weeks according to a half-day schedule that would avoid mealtimes, giving students less than three hours a day of personal training for only four days a week.
Meanwhile, some districts kept schools closed one day a week for what is sometimes described as a day of ‘deep cleansing’, which experts say has no benefit. In Anne Arundel County, it’s the cleaning day why the district intends to bring students back four days a week this spring, rather than five.