Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education
Updated March 20 to note that the California Department of Public Health posted the social distancing revisions on its website; updated March 21 to include more information about the San Diego County lawsuit..

In alignment with new federal guidance, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health have halved  the minimum social distancing requirement in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet.

The change may enable many school districts to resume full-day, in-person instruction before the end of this school year, instead of having to remain in full distance learning or resorting to a hybrid model, with fewer students at one time attending fewer hours per week, because of distancing constraints.

Aides to Newsom briefed representatives from school organizations late Friday about several rules changes, and the California Department of Public Health announced them on Saturday.

The revisions, which will also enable middle and high schools in counties with high rates of Covid infection to reopen sooner, should help resolve a lawsuit that parent groups from six school districts in San Diego County filed against the state and their districts. The lawsuit charged that state public health officials failed to provide a scientific rationale behind stricter reopening rules. Last week San Diego County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland agreed and issued a temporary injunction against the state, pending a hearing on April 1.

On Friday, the CDC shored up the parents’ case when it officially released the guidance that recommended keeping students in elementary grades a minimum of 3 feet apart. That would also be the standard in middle and high schools, unless Covid-19 infection rates are high — the equivalent of California’s purple tier — and schools are not keeping students in separate cohorts. Under those conditions, the social distancing would increase to 6 feet.

The California Department of Public Health’s revised guideline is simpler: 3 feet social distancing is “strongly recommended” but not required, as long as other safety measures are in place and enforced. These include requiring students and staff to wear masks, install proper ventilation and have contact tracing and virus detection protocols in place. Covid vaccinations also must be offered to all school staff before the reopening of schools. Social distancing will increase during lunch and breakfast to 6 feet, under the new state guidelines.

The CDC, which initially had recommended social distancing of 6 feet, made the change because of new U.S. and international studies that showed not only that Covid transmission has been low in schools where students are required to wear masks, but also that it didn’t make an appreciable difference whether social distancing was 3 feet or 6 feet.

The most persuasive evidence was from a Massachusetts study of 250 school districts serving half-million students with nearly 100,000 staff. The study was conducted over 16 weeks in the fall and winter. Researchers found no significant distinction in the spread of the virus in districts with 3 feet compared to those with 6 feet social distancing. Masks are universally required in Massachusetts.

“Now that there is substantial evidence pointing to the fact that 3 feet of distance doesn’t cause higher rates of Covid-19, it will be possible to bring more students back to full in-person schooling, even with the current school infrastructure,” a co-author of the study, Elissa Schechter-Perkins, a professor of emergency medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, told The 74.

The change in policy coincides with the reopening of schools in many California districts and the beginning of planning for resumption of full in-person instruction in the fall. With transmission rates quickly falling over the past month, only 11 counties, primarily in the Central Valley and rural areas, remain in the purple tier, where the rates of infection are highest. The rest are in orange or red, in which both elementary and secondary schools are permitted to open.

Newsom made $2 billion in funding conditional to the phasing in of in-person instruction by April 1.

Under the most recent state department of health guidance, issued in January, the state was requiring the 6-foot distancing where feasible, with a 4-foot minimum when creating hybrids and cohorts was not possible. County health officials have interpreted that differently, with some permitting 4 feet and some sticking with 6 feet.

For districts where many parents have said they’d rather continue with distance learning than transition to a partial reopening under a disruptive hybrid schedule of half-days or alternate weeks, halving the distancing requirement could make a big difference. A 6-foot distancing model requires a 36-square-foot bubble, while a 3-foot distance requires only a 9-square-foot bubble, mathematically permitting quadruple the number of students in a classroom. That would permit a full return to school instead of a maximum of 12 to 15 students in a typical classroom — parents and teachers willing.

The timing of a return to school in many districts may be contingent on renegotiations with employee unions. For those districts that tied the reopening to state public health guidelines, reopening may be easier than those that already have made reopening contingent on other criteria, such as community infection rates or complete protection from a two-shot vaccination.

Also, parents who believe it is unsafe to send their kids back this year with the 6-foot rule — from a third to more than half, depending on the district or community — may not be persuaded by studies that say it’s now safe at 3 feet. At least for the rest of the current school year, districts must provide distance learning as an option.

On Friday, California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd issued an ambivalent response to the CDC’s new guidance.

“Having quickly looked at today’s announcement, this move from 3-foot distance for students in schools will be among myriad challenges for our large urban school districts and those that haven’t yet prepared to fully implement the necessary, multilayered mitigation measures that the CDC says are essential regardless of the spacing between students in classrooms. School districts must follow through on implementing all those safety measures including vaccinations, wearing masks, handwashing, sanitization, adequate ventilation and testing and tracing,” Boyd said in a statement.

“We can’t let our guard down now. Using these safety protocols, we can regain the confidence needed to teach and learn in classrooms. Additionally, public health officials have rightly cautioned, the new variants are a concern.”

One person who questions whether adopting the CDC’s policy alone will go far enough — even though that’s what she and about 650 other physicians called for in a letter — is Dr. Jeanne Noble. Noble, associate professor of emergency medicine at UC San Francisco, and director of UCSF’s Covid response, was an organizer of the letter, which was sent to Newsom and Mark Ghaly, secretary of California’s Department of Health and Human Services, hours before aides disclosed that Newsom planned to do what they asked.

While pleased that Newsom “is listening to the science,” she said, “Given that some school districts are already noting that they do not intend to revise their hybrid plans based on this policy change,” Newsom “must not shy away from” ordering in-person instruction a full five days a week for all of the state’s children.

“It is my hope that he issues such a mandate by April 1 so that our middle and high school students are back in the classroom for full time instruction for the last 10 weeks of this academic year,” she said.

Impact on San Diego lawsuit

Scott Davison, a co-director of the Carlsbad Parent Organization, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit against the state and six San Diego County districts, said he was “elated” that the California Department of Public Health moved so quickly to revise the reopening guidelines.

“The combination of the lawsuit and the CDC changes pushed the dam over,” he said. “The timing was more than we had hoped for.”

In suspending the state’s social distancing rules, Judge Freeland’s temporary injunction also ordered the six districts to show why they shouldn’t open up schools to full-time instruction. They will file their response by Thursday in advance of a hearing on April 1. The districts are Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway, Vista and San Marcos, all unified districts, and the San Dieguito Union High School District.

Davison agreed with Noble that some districts will likely continue with previous hybrid plans, notwithstanding the new 3-foot recommendation, and said he expected more lawsuits to force them to expand reopening now.

One of the provisions that the lawsuit successfully challenged prohibited middle and high schools from reopening until the county level of infections declined to the red tier, while allowing elementary schools to open in the purple tier. The new state regulation allows any school to reopen when the average daily rate of new infections falls below 25 new cases per day, which is in the upper range of purple.

Currently, only 11 of 58 counties, mostly rural, remain in purple, so the change will affect few students. However, in the event of another surge, the new regulation will enable schools to remain open until the rate of community infection is very high.

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  1. el 3 months ago3 months ago

    We want kids back in classrooms and we need to balance risk. The plain reality of the situation is that most schools do not have the buildings and/or the staff to bring kids back to school full time with 6' of distance. So let's put that out up front and acknowledge it, that until we can put kids back in rooms at full density, we have a logistics problem. And so there's a lot of interest … Read More

    We want kids back in classrooms and we need to balance risk. The plain reality of the situation is that most schools do not have the buildings and/or the staff to bring kids back to school full time with 6′ of distance.

    So let’s put that out up front and acknowledge it, that until we can put kids back in rooms at full density, we have a logistics problem. And so there’s a lot of interest in finding that a 3′ distance – which is about what classrooms are always at – would be good enough.

    The Massachusetts study makes a great headline, but I think it is being given far more credit for conclusivity than is appropriate. What they found is that they couldn’t establish a statistical difference with the data they used, but with a quite high margin. That is, it could be as many as 50% more cases at the 3′ distances. Now if your cases are 0 or 1 that’s probably okay, but if your cases are 10 or 100 that’s a lot less okay.

    It’s also important to dig into the methods. Schools were classified not by observing children or even by visiting any of these schools but by reading safety plans. They have no information on how the safety plans were followed, or if schools who said 3′ were actually practicing greater distances. They also don’t know if schools with the shorter policy distance closed more often.

    Students in these districts were not necessarily subjected to surveillance testing so the data of the actual case rate is also not necessarily accurate. This makes it hard to know if the community is bringing infections into the school or the school is bringing infections back to the community.

    It may be that in fact that because students mix significantly in a cohort regardless of where their desks are located, and because maybe the virus aersolizes, that the distance of the desks doesn’t matter in the end. However, if that idea is used to then repopulate classrooms from say 15 students to 30 or 40 students, obviously the probability that someone in the room is infected increases along with the population. In a community where there are few infections, this may still be fine. In a community with a high case rate, this gets dangerous again.

    Everyone should be diligently remembering the exponential growth of virus transmission, and be reminded that one case can become a lot of cases very quickly. Surveillance testing, masking, and making it possible for sick people to stay home are going to remain essential. Here’s hoping that as we bring kids back that everyone works together to do everything they can to keep this virus out of our communities and out of our schools.

  2. Marie Jeffries 3 months ago3 months ago

    Newsom is only pushing the opening of schools so he won’t be recalled. Also not all, but most of the parents wanting schools open have said they want their ‘baby sitters back’. California has really gone downhill.

  3. Candace M 3 months ago3 months ago

    I am wondering how this school safety guidance applies in a special education classroom where students may not be able to wear masks and the distancing is impossible due to full classes?

  4. Dave san 3 months ago3 months ago

    So let’s get this straight. Original CDPH guidance was 6 ft as practicable. Then in January, with no new studies, no supporting data (but possibly a push from the CTA), they change it to 4 ft absolute minimum, 6 ft general and now, finally, after almost being forced, they change it to 3 ft. And Newsom and CA wonder why they are dead last at in person school? And the schools that are open really … Read More

    So let’s get this straight. Original CDPH guidance was 6 ft as practicable. Then in January, with no new studies, no supporting data (but possibly a push from the CTA), they change it to 4 ft absolute minimum, 6 ft general and now, finally, after almost being forced, they change it to 3 ft. And Newsom and CA wonder why they are dead last at in person school? And the schools that are open really aren’t – they are almost all full DL zoom from a classroom.