With six-foot distancing, desk barriers could be key for schools to fully reopen

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Anxiety is growing over what schools can do to fully reopen this spring, given that the state is not inclined to review its requirement that students be separated by at least six feet.

Many districts don't have enough space or staff to have all or most students in school five days a week and maintain six-foot distancing.

The answer may be that more school districts will have to install barriers between students' desks, the only clear alternative to the six-foot rule allowed by the state Health Department in a guidance issued last summer. Some districts have already done so.

A decal in place in the Monroe-Woodbury schools.

CDC: Mask wearing and six-foot distancing the most important strategies for reopening schools

Many educators have been hoping that the state would consider allowing districts to keep students three or four feet apart if other measures are taken to mitigate potential spread of COVID-19, including the widespread vaccination of staff, regular testing of staff and students, the use of high-tech ventilation systems, and ongoing mask-wearing.

But a statement issued by seven local state Assembly members who talked to state officials last week said the Health Department's position is that "no change in the State guidance was necessary or contemplated."

Assembly member Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, said she believes the state should offer schools alternatives to the six-foot rule. A growing body of research indicates three-foot distancing is safe when other measures are taken, she said, and many parents are pleading for schools to fully reopen.

"The kids need to be in school," Paulin said. "If the guidelines are not revisited, there will be a disparity among school districts that can afford to purchase the physical barriers and those that can't, a tale of two cities."

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin

Barriers range in price from $20 to more than $60. But some educators believe they are not the safest option because they limit ventilation.

Among them is Harrison Superintendent Lou Wool, who proposed to the state that his district be allowed to keep students three or four feet apart, with the installation of classroom filtration systems that kill COVID, the testing of 10% of staff and students each week, the vaccination of staff and continued mask-wearing.

But Health Department staff told him Friday, he said, that distancing of less than six feet would only be allowed with the use of barriers, as the state guidance says.

"If you leave six feet on the table, you're telling schools that we can't bring all the kids back without barriers," Wool said. "We shouldn't have such a cookie-cutter approach. Let us have some reasonable flexibility based on the research."

Wool said his district may be forced to purchase barriers, even though "by their nature they denigrate the ability to ventilate a room." 

Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler told The Journal News/lohud in November that plexiglass barriers could "stagnate airflow and make things worse." She could not be reached for comment Friday.

The state's position was strengthened when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a long-awaited guidance released Feb. 12, recommended that schools maintain six feet of distance, even if the statement hedged at several points.

Role of vaccinations

Educators and public officials have been pushing for the state to assist with two key steps to make schools safer: the prioritizing of vaccinations for school staff and the ongoing testing of students and staff for COVID.

When the CDC guidance was issued, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said it confirmed what New York educators believe.

"Masks must be mandatory, there should be six feet of social distancing, schools need adequate ventilation systems and hygiene protocols must be strictly followed," he said. "These are the steps that help build confidence in local reopening plans."

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that teachers must be vaccinated so that schools can open, but he didn't address how schools already offering hybrid instruction can fully reopen with the six-foot rule in place.

"Vaccinate teachers, reopen schools," Cuomo said.

But even if school staff are vaccinated and regular COVID testing is done in schools, it remains unclear how schools can fully reopen while maintaining six feet between students. Barriers appear to be the only option.

The state Health Department, in a statement Friday to The Journal News/lohud, said that reopening schools is a local decision, as long as the state's parameters are followed. The statement did not address a question about whether schools can keep students fewer than six feet apart without barriers.

"Our guidance, which has been out since last summer, remains unchanged and provides the tools for schools to safely reopen in-person classes," the statement said. "School district leadership must engage their community of educators, families, students, local governments and local departments of health to develop a local plan to operate schools safely with a combination of social distancing and masking." 

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, chair of the Senate education committee, said the governor's office believes the CDC guidance is supportive of New York's position on distancing. 

"Their view is they've given districts flexibility, but there's less flexibility than they think," she said.

Many districts are now considering what steps they will need to take to welcome back all students who want to return to school. The Ossining district, for example, is reviewing its options.

Ossining Schools Superintendent Ray Sanchez

"One thing we're looking at is whether you can go below six feet — what it would mean programmatically for our schools and the comfort level of our families and staff," Superintendent Ray Sanchez said.

In a virtual meeting Wednesday with school superintendents from across the country, Greta Massetti, a senior scientist with the CDC, said that six feet should be required when community transmission is high. But she said that distancing could be "to the greatest extent possible" when transmission is lower.

"If you can’t arrange desks within a classroom that are all fully six feet part, make sure that those people who are going to end up being close contacts, maybe students who are less than six feet, maybe only three feet, make sure there are fewer of those close contacts during the day," she said.

In the same meeting — dominated by questions about the six-foot rule — Donna Harris-Aikens of the U.S. Department of Education said schools would not be asked to close "because the students and/or staff are not six feet apart – as long as it is safe."

Pushing for change

Parents in many communities have been pushing their school districts to find ways to fully reopen schools, although that sentiment is far from universal. Tens of thousands of students in the region are home for full-time remote learning, an option offered by every district. 

Dr. Lauren Jen of Hastings-on-Hudson, a pediatrician with experience in school-based health, sent a letter to Westchester Executive George Latimer on Thursday seeking his support to relax the six-foot rule. The letter was signed by more than 30 doctors and other health-care professionals from Westchester.

Jen said she has studied the available research and that the greatest danger to students is continuing to miss in-person school.

"The sole emphasis on six feet is what is keeping kids, not just in Westchester but across the country, out of school," she said. "It is constantly surprising to me that our messaging seems to be so fear-based and is not leaning into positive experiences around the country. It removes children from the center of the conversation."

Latimer said during his Friday briefing that the county's role is to help get school staff vaccinated and to consult with districts on their policies. But he said it's the state Health Department that requires six feet of distance or barriers.

"We are not the main player in the game; we are a player in the game," he said.

Studies and distancing

Advocates for relaxing the six-foot rule point to several recent studies.

A Jan. 5 statement by The American Academy of Pediatrics said adults in schools should maintain a distance of six feet, while students' desks should be "at least 3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart."

Melissa Bohuniek teaches an on-line first grade class from her classroom at Stony Point Elementary School Sept. 24, 2020.

The AAP 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." But the statement did not address schools delivering hybrid instruction.

A January CDC study of COVID-19 spread at 17 Wisconsin schools found that strict mask-wearing appeared to minimize in-school transmission. The study did not address social-distancing rules, but its lead author, Dr. Amy Falk, told The Journal News/lohud that keeping a set distance between students was not a priority in the schools studied. 

A Mayo Clinic study from November found when using mannequins bearing face masks, the risk of exposure to respiratory droplets dropped to 17% at three feet apart and 3% at six feet apart. 

Assemblyman Chris Burdick, D-Bedford, said that figuring out how to safely reopen schools is a difficult task for all involved.

"This [remote] instruction is almost meaningless for a lot of students and puts a tremendous burden on teachers," he said. "We are moving as as quickly as we can." 

Gary Stern has worked at The Journal News/lohud for over 30 years, primarily covering education and religion and serving as engagement editor. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY