It’s long past time to abandon 6 feet distancing at schools (and the CDC is not going to save the day)

Up until yesterday, families had been counting on the CDC to release updated guidance for schools which would make re-opening more feasible.  Even Superintendent Schuler, at last night’s board meeting, said that he expected the new guidance to include relaxed provisions for social distancing, for instance a 3 foot rather than 6 foot guideline, which would enable them, among other developments, to add more spaces for summer school classes.

Turns out, the guidelines are a step backwards.

Here is the current guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health:

Are all individuals in a school building required to maintain social distance (remain 6 feet apart) at all times? (Updated 6/25/2020)

Social distance must be observed as much as possible. Desks do not need to be spaced 6 feet apart; however, it is recommended that excess furniture be removed from classrooms to allow for as much space as possible in between desks.

As it is, the Catholic schools interpret this guidance to mean that efforts should be made to space students but that students may be seated closer than 6 feet as needed to accommodate all students in a classroom; this is paired with a cohort model and quarantining of close contacts.  In Arlington Heights School District 25, which has now moved to a four-day in-person model, they likewise interpret the guidance as that of maximizing distancing given the relevant constraints, so that, depending on room capacity, students may have as little as 3 feet distancing (see their latest reopening guide).

However, District 214  has maintained that it is absolutely necessary at all times that 6 feet distances between all persons be preserved.  They limit in-person attendance, have instituted one-way hallways, prohibit students from eating with peers (on campus; from all reports, students congregate off campus instead).  Not only are in-person limits themselves harmful, but the mandate creates a deeply unwelcoming school environment which, naturally enough, keeps students away from school and engenders loneliness for those who do attend.

And now the CDC has dashed all hopes that they would remedy the situation with federal guidance to loosen up the rules; what they’ve done instead is take a step backwards.

The new guidance includes four color-coded transmission levels:  blue (0 – 9 new cases per 100,000 in the past 7 days), yellow (10 – 49), orange (50 – 99), and red (over 100 cases per 100,000 in the past 7 days).

In any “red” area, the recommendation is for virtual-only middle and high schools and hybrid or reduced attendance, in either case with 6 feet or more of distancing required.  In “orange” cases, middle and high schools are permitted (or “recommended”) to be hybrid or reduced attendance only, again with 6 feet distancing.  In “yellow” and “blue” levels all K-12 schools are permitted, or “recommended,” to be open for “full in-person instruction,” but still with “physical distancing of 6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible.”

Perhaps it might be helpful that the CDC distinguishes between an absolute 6 foot requirement and a “6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible” requirement but the accompanying “Handbook” suggests that in any event distancing is meant to remain stringent.  Illustrations of classroom layouts include alternatives for 9, 8, 10, 15 and16 students; in other words, in no event do they envision classrooms of normal capacity.  (See Politico for a summary and contextualizing of these documents.)  What’s more, the handbook and the CDC guidance, paired together, suggest that physical classroom limitations are the only acceptable reasons for a reduced distancing requirement.

And, lastly, again, note that these documents do not contain an endpoint; the “blue level” includes in its range, 0 cases.

All of which means that the school district cannot look to the CDC’s guidance to give it a way out of the impossible situation it has created for itself by imposing a strict 6 foot requirement.  It simply must take the leap — if it can even reasonably be called that — and offer in-person learning under less-strict provisions.


“social distancing,”, Tstock09, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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