New CDC Guidance on Schools and Social Distancing

There is some new guidance from the CDC on social distancing in schools!

As the husband of a lower school principal, I have been lucky enough to have a front row seat to the incredibly complex and vital process of keeping kids safe in the era of COVID-19. This was especially difficult last Spring, when school administrators were tasked with “building the airplane while it was in flight” - switching instantly to remote learning, something that had never been done before at this kind of scale. As the year wore on, the work pivoted to building processes and systems that let the kids return to school in person, while reserving the ability to provide Zoom school to those families who wanted it, or in situations where a COVID exposure required quickly quarantining a group of kids.

So many things came together to keep the infection rate low after the return to in-person classes: improved ventilation, hand hygiene, and surveillance through pooled saliva testing. Cohorting has also been very helpful - by keeping groups of kids and teachers together throughout the day with no mixing with other groups, you limit silent spread through asymptomatic people. Also, if one person gets sick, you don’t have to quarantine the whole grade, only that group. More recently, educators were given priority access to vaccination. And of course, “social distancing”, the new phrase that everyone learned in 2020, has been implemented in the classroom.

This past week (on March 19th), the CDC released an update of their school operational strategy, which is based on the latest findings about virus transmission. Like everything else related to COVID, our understanding is built on data. And that data accumulates every day. A year and a half ago, no one had ever heard of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. So if you look back at guidance and policies over the past twelve months, you will see a lot of change. And as they say in the software industry - that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Changing your conclusions based on new data is basically what science is all about. It’s critical to continually re-evaluate those conclusions.

SO, what’s new from the CDC? Well, the previous recommendations for physical barriers (like plexiglass dividers) is no more. But the biggest change is that the 6 foot social distancing guideline has been reduced to 3 feet for students in most K-12 educational environments, assuming that mask use is universal. The only classroom exception to this change is for middle and high school students in regions where community transmission is high and cohorting is not possible. And 6 feet remains the recommendation for adults, in common areas, in situations where masks are not worn (e.g. when eating), or during activities like singing and sports, with increased exhalation (best done outside or in large, well ventilated spaces).

One important thing to remember is that the CDC publishes guidelines, but schools are subject to regulations from state and local agencies. In New York City, that means the NY Department of Health. The DOH rules don’t always mirror recommendations from the CDC, and they have not made any change to their current policies based on this update just yet. Watch this space for more on that in the future.

The bottom line is that in-person education has been one of the success stories of the pandemic, thanks to the efforts of school administrators, teachers, parents and support staff. Unlike other indoor spaces that have their own challenges to safe opening, classrooms have the advantage of being utilized by a relatively fixed and motivated group of people. And as I wrote previously, in-person education is far superior to remote learning, so doing it safely should be plan A.

Thanks to everyone who is helping to #stopthespread.

Spring is coming!