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New York should update six-foot rule for schools to aid full reopening, officials say

Gary Stern Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Calls are growing for the state to update and possibly reduce its six-foot distancing rule for students and staff in schools, which educators say would help districts bring students back five days a week, either this spring or in the fall.

The educational community also wants Albany to speed the full reopening of schools by  providing immediate access to vaccinations for teachers and other staff and providing COVID-19 tests to schools to do regular, random testing.

"To get kids in school five days week, we need vaccines for teachers, surveillance testing and the right amount of space [between people] so that it's safe," said Frances Wills, who represents the Lower Hudson Valley on the state Board of Regents. "The six-foot rule has caused a lot of confusion and needs to be clarified, given what we know."

The desks in a kindergarten class are spaced far apart at Stony Point Elementary School on Sept. 24, 2020.

State Health Department guidelines released last summer for schools said that "appropriate social distancing means six feet of space in all directions between individuals" or the use of "appropriate physical barriers between individuals." The guidelines also said masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible.

The six-foot rule has limited the ability of most school districts to bring students to school five days a week because of a lack of space.

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Educators in the region have largely supported the rule, deferring to health officials on matters of student and staff safety. But the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and recent high-profile statements by officials have some calling on the Health Department to clarify whether the six-foot rule can be safely reduced.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a Jan. 5 guidance, said students' desks should be "at least 3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart." It also said: "Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative."

A Jan. 26 article by three researchers with the CDC concluded that data "suggest a path forward" to part- or full-time in-school instruction. It said that mitigation measures must continue, including "increasing physical distance," but did not address an appropriate distance.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky also caused a stir last week when she said schools could safely reopen without teachers being vaccinated. On Friday, she said the CDC will release new guidelines for the reopening of schools in the coming week.

Now, the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents is calling on the state to streamline vaccinations for educators, provide access to testing for COVID-19, and update the Health Department rules for social distancing. The council covers school chiefs in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Frances Wills represents Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties on the state Board of Regents.

"We need to hear something more concrete to assist communities that want to take the next step of opening schools all the time," said Council President Joe Ricca, superintendent of White Plains schools. "People want to know whether three feet or four feet is okay. I can't get all my [students] back at six feet apart.

"No one wants to miss the mark when you're talking about health," he continued. "But to me, the vaccine is a game-changer."

The state Health Department, asked by the Journal News/lohud whether consideration is being given to updating the six-foot rule, said in a statement: “The guidance lays out the requirements and contains information on social distancing, masks, barriers and how to proceed to ensure student and faculty safety.  And as we've said, schools should continue to work with their students, teachers, staff, families, communities and local health departments."

Placing the blame

Most school districts in the Lower Hudson Valley are offering hybrid instruction, meaning that students are in school for two, three or four days each week and learning at home on other days. 

Some districts have their early grades in schools five days a week, either because they have the space to spread them out or are using barriers between desks.

But for other parents who want to see their children in school five days a week, the six-foot rule has begun to sound less like a safety measure and more like an excuse.

Elle Norton, an Ardsley parent, holds a sign during a rally to open schools at Renaissance Plaza in White Plains Feb. 4, 2021.

Parents from six Westchester communities held a rally in downtown White Plains on Thursday afternoon, hoping to get the attention of state and local leaders. They said it doesn’t matter who takes the necessary steps to fully reopen schools back. They just want to see their children in classrooms.

“I feel like what the state and county and local agencies have done is put us in this horrible game of tennis where they're hitting responsibility back and forth to each other,” said Christine Weston, a Scarsdale mom of seventh and fourth grade students. “No one will take responsibility.”

Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, understands parents' frustration.

"But I think they probably have the wrong enemy," he said. "It wouldn't be the people running the schools. It would be the virus."

Getting more students in

For now, school districts across the region are trying to find ways to get students in school more often, including the use of barriers between desks, which is allowed under the state guidelines.

The Arlington school district is planning to make the switch to three feet between students by using protective barriers and air filters in classrooms. Interim Superintendent Larry Licopoli said the change will allow for kindergarten through second grade to come to school five days a week. Other grades would return as equipment becomes available.

The Rye City School District already has three-way shields around desks that act as barriers between students. Now the district is considering a plan to begin a phased, full reopening of schools next month that would maintain social distancing of three to six feet. Officials are seeking feedback from parents and staff.

Rye Superintendent Eric Byrne said it's time for the state to update its rules.

Eric Byrne, the new superintendent for Rye School District is photographed in his office in Rye on August 8, 2017.

"We want to get schools open, so we need access to clear, accurate information that's based on the latest scientific research," he said.

Growing numbers of districts, like New Rochelle, now have the space to bring more students to school five days a week because so many families are keeping their children at home for all-remote learning.

Districts are also asking residents to support their call for the state to provide vaccinations for educators and COVID-19 tests for the regular, random testing of students and staff. Pleasantville has provided residents a digital letter to state officials.

Educators are already eligible to get vaccinated, but officials would like to see a centralized approach to vaccinating school staff. Many schools have struggled to cover classrooms and keep schools open because of staff quarantines.  

"These are essential elements for reopening," Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter said. "We have to get shots in the arms of educators. I would volunteer my buildings and nursing staff."

Staff Writer Katelyn Cordero contributed to this report.