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3 Feet Apart: New CDC Guidance For Students May Allow For More Schools To Reopen

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent school leaders scrambling yesterday with a fairly sudden and dramatic decision that reduced the distance students should be spaced in schools from six feet to three. For more on that, we're joined by NPR's Cory Turner. Cory, thanks so much for being with us.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What more can you tell us about this policy reversal?

TURNER: Well, up to now, the CDC has said that kids in most school settings should be spaced six feet apart, just like everybody else. Realistically, for schools, that's meant only about 12 kids in a classroom, which obviously put school leaders in a real bind this past year. Yesterday, though, the agency cut that recommendation in half for most schools, down to three feet. There are some exceptions, though. CDC stands by six feet in communities where transmission rates are still high, also six feet between adults in schools and when kids are eating.

SIMON: And why the change now?

TURNER: Well, the CDC says it's because their understanding of this pandemic just keeps evolving. After all, it was just last month that I was covering the CDC unveiling of new school guidance that doubled down on six feet. But recent research has found little to no difference in transmission rates when students are six feet apart versus three feet apart - at least three feet apart - as long as they're wearing masks. And, Scott, it's also worth noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the World Health Organization, the WHO, had already thrown their support behind this lower standard.

SIMON: What change could this indicate for schools? Is there going to be a rush to reopen fully now?

TURNER: Yes and no. Let's start with the yes. I've been hearing from school leaders essentially since August that if they had to space desks six feet apart, there's no way they'd be able to accommodate all their students. And that's why we've seen many schools choose to divide kids into really awkward hybrid rotations, you know, where they're coming into classrooms in groups one or two days a week or maybe four days every other week. So I spoke with a handful of superintendents yesterday who told me the CDC update is a game-changer.

SIMON: That's the yes part. Why, on the other hand, might we not see a rush of children returning to school?

TURNER: I think the challenge there, Scott, is the word rush. Many schools at this point - I mean, it's mid-March. They've already surveyed families. They've crunched the numbers. They've divided up their classrooms. They've prepped their teachers. And they're right now rolling out reopening plans that were built around this six feet recommendation. So cutting that distance in half, yes, it would fit more kids, but it would also require an enormous logistical pivot for schools, which I think we will see. It's just not going to happen overnight.

There are also a couple other challenges. One, teachers' unions greeted yesterday's news with real skepticism. Their message was basically, we're not convinced three feet is safe. And it's not just teachers. You know, in spite of what the science says, many families still don't feel safe sending their kids back. I spoke yesterday with Shari Camhi. She's superintendent of a district on Long Island, where about a third of her students are still fully remote.

SHARI CAMHI: Not everybody is there yet. There's a lot of people that are still very wary about being in person. You know, there are those of us who have lost people we love.

TURNER: So, Scott, I think it's really important that we see in the coming weeks and months a real outreach not only by school leaders but also political leaders to reassure these families and their communities that schools are safe.

SIMON: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner, thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.