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Some teachers concerned about new CDC social distancing recommendations in schools

ATLANTA — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a change to its COVID-19 school guidance on Friday.

The agency reduced the recommended space between students from 6 feet to 3 feet for elementary, middle and high schools, as long as there’s not a high level of community spread.

If there is high community spread, the CDC recommends 6 feet of distancing.

New evidence that it may be safe for schools to seat students 3 feet apart -- half of the previous recommended distance -- could offer a way to return more of the nation’s children to classrooms with limited space.

“There is a lot of iff’s that people don’t want to look at,” said Elena Brown, a Union County teacher and Vice President of the Educators Association. “They are saying only if the viral transmission rate is below a certain threshold.”

On the state maps from the Department of Health and Human Services, several local counties have dropped from red, the highest rate of spread, to orange or yellow, the lowest. But the CDC guidelines say that anything more than 100 news cases per 100,000 is considered a high spread rate. Those counties are over 200, and under CDC guidelines, would be in the red.

“We all wish we were there, we’re just not there yet, so we have to keep doing the work to keep the kids, staff, the students, teachers, everybody safe, and be done with this thing,” parent Stacy Staggs said.

“I’d say it’s confusing. It’s inconsistent. This is unprecedented and so they are all guessing,” parent Steve Powers said.

Some parents are frustrated by the back-and-forth from the government, and teachers said they want the guidelines followed.

“I am just hoping our school board will look at the science,” Brown said.

The teachers acknowledge that if a district doesn’t follow the guidelines, there is not a lot they can do about it.

Even as more teachers receive vaccinations against COVID-19, social distancing guidelines have remained a major hurdle for districts across the U.S. Debate around the issue flared last week when a study suggested that masked students can be seated as close as 3 feet apart with no increased risk to them or teachers.

Published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the research looked at schools in Massachusetts, which has backed the 3-foot guideline for months. Illinois and Indiana are also allowing 3 feet of distance, and other states such as Oregon are considering doing the same.

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The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said the 6-foot guideline is “among the biggest challenges” schools have faced in reopening.

The CDC included the larger spacing in its latest school guidelines, which were issued in February and concluded that schools can safely operate during the pandemic with masks, distancing and other precautions. It suggested 6 feet and said physical distancing “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

Other organizations have issued more relaxed guidelines, including the World Health Organization, which urges 1 meter in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to space desks “3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart.”