The newly minted recommendation for social distancing in the nation’s public school classrooms — shrinking the distance from 6 feet to 3 feet in most instances — is another example of how the science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. At the same time, it’s an example of how nothing — nothing — is ever simple in this conflict between virus and human.
Mostly, the new standard is a good sign — especially for Yakima Valley students, many of whom are from lower-income families. Financial issues at home can be indicators of learning issues in school, so it makes sense that the more kids we can get back into in-person classrooms and the more often they can attend such classes, the better for those kids and, ultimately, our community.
But, oh, why can’t it be simpler?
It’s such a basic concept: For months, based on the best medical and scientific advice available, in-class seats were supposed to be 6 feet from one another — about the width of eight Pee-Chee folders, if that helps. But the new recommendation is 3 feet (do the math: only four Pee-Chees).
In announcing the new guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited several reputable studies indicating that transmission rates are unlikely to increase with less space between students in the classroom as long as other safety precautions such as mask-wearing are followed.
But caveats exist. High school and middle school students, for instance, should stay 6 feet apart in class if transmission is high in their communities, according to the CDC. But if they can cohort — that is, keep the same students together and away from others throughout the day — then 3 feet is OK. Gov. Jay Inslee supported this position Thursday as he encouraged Washington schools to follow the new recommendations. The 3 feet is optional for now, but all schools should be following the change this summer and fall, he said.
Teachers unions have suggested crowded schools with poor ventilation should keep the 6-foot rule. The new state and federal recommendations say staff should stay 6 feet from kids and other staff.
Lunchtime, music class, PE, walking from room to room in the hallways? Still 6 feet, you kids. And no cuts.
We’ll be having a quiz on all of this material Tuesday.
Like we said, nothing is simple.
Take the Yakima School District, for example, which has been seeing a troubling rise in COVID-19 infections since adopting a full-hybrid schedule — part-time, in-person learning for certain grades — a couple of weeks ago. Despite the new CDC regulations and Inslee’s blessing for reduced social distancing, YSD Superintendent Trevor Greene and his team are taking a more conservative approach and will keep the 6-foot standard in place for now. They plan to reassess following spring break.
Yakima’s hesitation is understandable given the concern over rising case numbers. Even though none of its cases were found to have been transmitted at school, the substantial increase coupled with who-knows-what activities and gatherings students might partake of during their upcoming week off makes safety-conscious district officials leery.
The caveats make sense as well; the science seems to indicate that older students tend to have wider social circles and are more likely to come into contact with infected persons. As for the younger kids, you can’t wear a mask while eating, and music and PE are likely to induce heaver breathing.
And that’s one of the beauties of science. How often have you heard discussions about mask-wearing in the pandemic era in which somebody interjects: “The science isn’t settled on masks”? Is science every truly settled? We learn as we go. And right now, based on the best science and data available, it appears that there’s little risk in putting a few more kids back into classrooms, maybe a bit more often, as long as we follow all the other COVID-19 health and safety protocols — and, noting Yakima schools’ plans, as long as other indicators show that it’s safe.
In-class learning is better than at-home learning for many students. Students who fail to meet learning metrics at younger ages face great risk of never truly catching up. If done carefully, implementing the new 3-foot standard should benefit countless students.