Health officials now allow students to sit closer
The California Department of Public Health updated its school guidelines Saturday to allow a minimum of three feet between students, instead of six feet, matching the CDC’s updated policy.
The change could allow some school districts to offer in-person instruction five days per week instead of a hybrid schedule.
The CDC changed its K-12 guidance Friday after reviewing studies that showed minimal to no difference of COVID-19 transmission in schools with three feet of physical distance when compared to schools with six feet of distance.
“Part of what’s happening is at the beginning we made a lot of assumptions based on other viruses. And as studies come out, we adjust things,” Dr. Peggy Dodds, deputy health officer at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, told the News-Press Monday.
“We assumed schools would be a significant source of infection like it is with other viruses, such as influenza, but that was not the case,” she said.
Dr. Dodds adds that on-campus transmission has been rare. Students who get the virus contract it elsewhere.
The CDC recommended students in secondary schools stay at least six feet apart if the community’s transmission is high and cohorting is not possible. But CDPH did not specify the policy in its guidance.
Prior to Saturday, CDPH required six feet of physical distance, or at least four feet if the district makes a “good faith effort” to adhere to six feet spaces.
The new three-foot minimum applies when all other mitigation strategies, like mask adherence and classroom ventilation, are followed. If students are not wearing masks, such as at lunch time, they must stay at least six feet apart.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has not discussed enforcing stricter regulations, according to Dr. Dodds.
Santa Barbara County districts may adopt the new guidelines without submitting safety plans to public health departments because the county is in the red tier.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District was not available for comment Monday, but a spokesperson for the district indicated Thursday that officials would be “following this development closely,” in regards to the three-foot rule.
“If the guidance allows for desks to be closer together, we would definitely be looking at our calculations and measuring how many more students can be safely accommodated in our classroom spaces,” Camie Barnwell, chief of district communications, said.
Districts should update the safety plans posted on their websites if they alter their distancing measures, Dr. Dodds said.
The CDC and CDPH require a minimum of six feet between staff members and students, which is also stipulated in Santa Barbara Unified School District’s contract with the Santa Barbara Teachers Association.
California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd gave a statement Saturday after CDPH altered its physical distancing requirements:
“Since the pandemic began, safety has been, and continues to be, the priority for educators. Another shift in guidelines as a way to sprint back to classrooms sends another confusing message to students, parents and families … We should be cautious of making decisions based on one out-of-state study in one school district,” he said.
The CDC cites three studies in its news release Friday.
One study monitored 20 schools in Salt Lake County, Utah, during a period of high transmission. The median distance between students was three feet. The study did not find any outbreaks but recorded five school-related cases of COVID-19 among 735 tests.
CTA President Boyd expressed concern about rising variants.
But officials do not have enough research on the variants to conclude how they could impact the study, Dr. Dodds said.
The CDC emphasizes ventilation and grouping students into small cohorts.
In his statement, Mr. Boyd said, “With the guidelines changing, once again, it is imperative that school districts follow through on implementing all those safety measures including adequate ventilation, vaccinations, wearing high-quality, well-fit masks, hand washing, sanitization, and testing and tracing. It’s also important to follow the guidelines on having small stable groups.”
Most local districts are currently operating in a hybrid schedule with smaller groups on campus.