New York state on Friday eased reopening restrictions on schools to allow most students to sit closer together as long as they continue to wear masks.
But before they can make any changes, school districts will have to allow parents, school staff and local health officials to weigh in, under guidance released by the state Department of Health.
“Ultimately, the school/district’s decision to move to shorter physical distances will come down to a local community’s risk tolerance based on its unique circumstances,” the 24-page document released late Friday said.
The distancing change, which follows federal guidance, is expected to allow schools to bring more students back to buildings and reduce their reliance on distance learning that has most students participating from home for at least part of the week.
President Joe Biden has made it a priority to fully reopen K-8 schools by the end of April, but superintendents in New York have been frustrated by the state’s delay in acting on federal guidance issued last month that says students wearing masks can safely sit just 3 feet (1 meter), rather than 6 feet (2 meters), apart in the classroom.
The revised state guidelines allow for at least 3 feet of distance between students in elementary, middle and high school classrooms in counties with a low or moderate risk of transmission.
In counties where infection rates are high, middle and high schools should still aim for 6 feet of distancing unless they can maintain “cohorting,” where groups of students remain together through the day.
Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, said the revised guidelines outline mandatory mask use requirements and ventilation recommendations, in addition to distancing rules, that create a "layered mitigation strategy."
"There also is more to be done to strengthen safety protocols. While the state recommends that districts 'strongly consider' implementing screening testing, we believe there is zero excuse for all districts not to implement routine testing as soon as possible," Pallotta said in a Saturday statement.
Parents in four western New York districts have sued in recent weeks to resume full-time live instruction. Districts say distancing requirements have sharply limited how many students they can accommodate and forced them to remove desks and stagger schedules.
In the Williamsville Central School District, one of the districts being sued, Acting Superintendent John McKenna said in a recorded April 1 community update that all of the district’s schools were prepared to bring students in full-time if the state revised its guidelines.
“We will be reviewing this guidance throughout the weekend and will provide an update to our school community on Monday,” McKenna wrote on the district’s website late Friday.
About 18 percent of New York public school fourth-graders had access to full-time, in-person instruction in February, while 80 percent were offered a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning, according to a Biden administration survey.
Nationwide, nearly 46 percent of public schools offered five days a week of in-person learning to all students, according to the survey, but just 34 percent of students were learning full time in the classroom. The gap was most pronounced among older K-12 students, with just 29 percent of eighth graders getting five days a week of learning at school.
Even before the CDC revised distancing guidance for schools, some states and communities had disregarded the 6-foot recommendations, citing more relaxed guidelines from the World Health Organization, which urges 1 meter in schools and American Academy of Pediatrics, which says to space desks “3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart.”
Onondaga County officials changed social distancing rules for central New York schools in early March. The new rules gave districts the option of seating students 3 feet apart in classrooms, but with barriers or shields separating desks and students and staff continuing to wear masks.
For schools in New York City, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said as estimated 70 percent of families are still opting for remote learning, "and so the immediate impact of such a change will be confined to the limited number of buildings - predominantly elementary schools - where space limitations mean that some students now attend fewer than five days a week."