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DOH aligns guidance with CDC

By Eric D. Randall

Following the lead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health has issued a new version of school guidance that permits students to be as little as three feet apart from each other, with certain exceptions.

Also, barriers are no longer recommended, consistent with a March 19 update by the CDC.

The state guidance says: "The CDC no longer recommends physical barriers for mitigation where physical distancing cannot be maintained. A preferred approach is enhanced ventilation and air filtration to dilute and remove any SARS-Cov-2 particles from the air."

School boards must solicit public comment "prior to making any change to reduce physical distancing to less than six feet between students during academic instruction," the guidance states. The process "must include opportunities for feedback from parents, community members, teachers, staff and local departments of health. This meeting must be held before any change to the physical distancing in schools can be made."

Consistent with prior guidance, face masks that meet guidelines are required for all people in school "at all times, except for meals," with exceptions for individuals with medical or mental health reasons for not wearing a mask. On school buses, individuals "must wear an acceptable mask at all times" including entering, exiting and while being seated.

One exception to the new three-foot standard involves counties with a high risk of transmission. In those counties, "elementary schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms … However, in middle and high schools three feet between students in classrooms is recommended only when schools can use cohorting."

Cohorts are defined as "self-contained, pre-assigned groups of students with reasonable group size limits set forth by the school in their plan." The guidance says cohorting can be an effective way to minimize the potential spread of the virus, particularly among younger students.

The guidance states that a minimum of six feet of distance must be maintained at all times between all adults (teachers, staff and visitors) and between students and adults. Six feet is also the rule in all common areas (e.g. lobbies, auditoriums, gymnasiums, cafeterias and hallways) – "where possible."

Six feet of distance must also be maintained when students are not wearing a mask, including eating, drinking and playing a wind instrument, according to detailed rules listed on pages 6, 7 and 8 of the guidance.

"This may mean that meals cannot be eaten in classrooms that have been converted to three feet of physical distance during instruction time," the guidance notes. 

Also, students must be six feet from others when singing, and the phraseology of the document suggests this is regardless of whether they are wearing a mask. "There must be six feet of distance between the performers and the audience during performances and concerts," according to the guidance.

"This document potentially will alleviate a great deal of confusion that has existed in the field since the CDC revised its guidelines," said NYSSBA Executive Director Robert Schneider. "There is strong interest in getting students back in school in a safe way, consistent with clear guidelines from authorities on public health."

The guidance is 24 pages. "The NYSSBA legal and governmental relations staff are studying the document carefully and anticipate providing our members with detailed information about it," said Jay Worona, NYSSBA’s deputy executive director and general counsel.

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