The debate over how to safely reopen Chicago schools is echoed around the US, with new CDC guidelines expected.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines for schools on Friday, saying students can safely sit just 1 metre (3 feet) apart in classrooms as long as they wear masks, down from the previous 2 metres (6 feet) recommendation.
The revised guidelines represent a turn away from the standard that has sharply limited how many students some schools can accommodate. Some places have had to remove desks, stagger scheduling and take other steps to keep children apart.
During a coronavirus task force news conference on Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said new evidence suggests that students can be safely seated 3 feet apart when “everyone, student and staff wore a mask at all times”.
“We now have new information that help us refine our recommendations specifically for physical distancing,” Walensky said.
In recent months, schools in some states have been disregarding the CDC guidelines, using 1 metre gap as their standard. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC’s community interventions task force.
While there is evidence of improved mental health and other benefits from in-person schooling, “we don’t really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread”, Massetti said.
The new guidance removes recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks, advises at least 1 metre of space between desks in elementary schools, even in towns and cities where community spread is high, so long as students and teachers wear masks and take other precautions.
Also, younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus and do not seem to spread it as much as adults do.
Spacing can also be 1 metre in middle and high schools, so long as there is not a high level of spread in the community. If there is, spacing should be at least 2 metres.
The CDC said 2 metres should still be maintained in common areas, such as school lobbies, and when masks cannot be worn, such as when eating.
Also, students should be kept 6 feet apart in situations where there are a lot of people talking, cheering or singing, all of which can expel droplets containing the coronavirus. That includes chorus practice, assemblies and sports events.
“Today’s announcement builds on our ongoing efforts to support teachers, schools, staff and students as well as our work and educational and public health stakeholders to provide the guidance tools and resources to get our nations’ schools open as quickly and safely as possible,” Walensky said.
Walensky added that the administration of President Joe Biden plans to invest $10bn to fund coronavirus testing for teachers and students. She added that there have been “ongoing efforts to get teachers and school staff vaccinated” this month.
On Friday, the Biden administration said they have met the goal of administering 100 million coronavirus jabs during Biden’s first 100 days in office, six weeks before schedule.
Officials say they are now working towards the next goal, which is to have all adults be eligible for a vaccine in all states by May 1.
The CDC says they are currently administering an average of 2.5 million shots a day, and, as of Friday, 16 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated.