Distancing debate key to school reopenings

WITH TUESDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT by state officials that they want to see all elementary grade students back in classrooms five days a week by April, now comes the hard part of the details of how to do it. 

Looming large in the challenge of getting students back into classrooms is a term that’s become part of the daily lexicon of pandemic policy debates: social distancing. Call it the elephant in the classroom. 

Most public health recommendations have urged people to maintain at least six feet of separation from those not in their household. The federal Centers for Disease Control says six feet should also apply in school settings. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in guidelines for the school year released last June, said three feet is adequate. 

The state guidelines encourage districts to “aim for six feet of distance between individuals where feasible,” but say maintaining a distance of three feet, in combination with other mitigation efforts, “is informed by evidence and balances the lower risk of COVID-19 transmission and the overarching benefits of in-person school.” The state guidelines note that this approach aligns with recommendations of the World Health Organization, which says one meter (three feet, three inches) of social distancing is adequate to reduce risk of transmitting coronavirus. 

State officials point to evidence of much lower transmission rates among younger children and enforcement of masking and other safety measures in schools that aren’t assumed to be in place in the six-foot recommendations for people in other settings. 

The CDC restated its six feet standard as part of a set of new school reopening recommendations issued earlier this month. 

Reacting to the new CDC guidelines, 60 Boston area infectious disease physicians and public health experts signed a letter to state education commissioner Jeff Riley raising doubts about the federal standard and voicing support for the state’s three-feet recommendation. 

The health experts said they have “concerns with the Return to School guidelines recently released by the CDC” and wanted to “reinforce our conviction that the guidelines set out by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in June 2020 are more appropriate to guide Massachusetts, particularly with regard to distancing between students and that opening schools to in-person learning should reflect within school transmission rather than strictly community COVID prevalence rates.”

They said the CDC guidelines fail to take stock of successful efforts to implement mitigation measures in schools that dramatically reduce transmission risk, even in communities with high overall community COVID-19 rates. 

The debate between three and six feet has big implications for school reopenings, as many schools would not be able to have all students return to their classroom with six feet between them. Indeed, that’s been part of the rationale for hybrid models that have divided students into two cohorts, with each group in school two days a week. It’s easier to meet the six-feet standard with half as many students in classrooms. 

In Fairhaven, school superintendent Robert Baldwin said the district has been able to have just first- and second-grade students back in-person all year, but that’s been achieved by dividing classes up and making use of other spaces in schools so that there are no more than 12 students in any classroom. That would probably be tough to do if all elementary grade students were brought back to the district’s schools. 

“We worked off of six feet,” said Baldwin. As for the idea of reopening schools with three feet of distance, he said, “I’m going to be honest. I’m not a scientist. You give me scientific evidence on what’s best for kids, I’m going to follow that.”

Balancing what’s best for kids, say education officials, takes account of both the virus risks of in-person learning and the harm that nearly all agree is coming from young people being marooned at home. 

There is no sudden protection from coronavirus that kicks in when people are six feet apart. Last week, the Brookline schools released a summary of what it calls the “scientific consensus” that supports a “reduction of 6-foot distancing parameters.” 

In terms of the impact of social distancing, it says the “risk reduction is a gradient, not a binary, effect.” That means there may be less risk at six feet than at three, but it may not be that large. Indeed, the summary says “the absolute reduction in transmission risk going from 3-foot to 6-foot distancing is very small to practically non-existent in a low-risk setting (e.g., as a result of universal mask wearing, enhanced ventilation, and other mitigation measures in our schools).” 

Sometimes where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit. 

The new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Biden, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, came to the agency from Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was an infectious disease physician. Interviewed earlier this month by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Walensky defended the new CDC school opening guidelines. But Tapper showed a private email CNN obtained that Walensky sent last July to Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller saying she believed three feet of distance between students was “quite safe,” especially if they are masked. 

Asked what’s changed, Walensky said virus rates were much lower in the summer when she wrote that, and that we have new evidence and new concerns now, such as the coronavirus variants that have emerged. “We have to be humble as to what we’re learning and be willing to be flexible as we learn more,” she said.  

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

The Baker administration, after months of prodding schools to resume in-person learning, is preparing to use state regulations to force students in lower grades back into classrooms.

On the Legislature’s joint rules, the House takes a different approach than the Senate, with its proposal providing less transparency.

With Gov. Charlie Baker pushing for in-person learning, could in-person sports viewing (Bruins, Red Sox, Celtics, etc.) be on the horizon

Legislation authorizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants gets refiled again, with advocates tailoring their pitches for the bill using COVID-19 and the need to drive.

Opinion: Jonathan Cohn of the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts says it’s time for the state Legislature to adopt basic rules of transparency used in many other states. 

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Attorney General Maura Healey is suddenly very visible on the state’s COVID vaccine rollout, though she has little formal role in the issue. Some see it as a prelude to a run for governor next year. (Boston Globe

A state commission recommends that Massachusetts allow campaign funds to be used for childcare expenses, a move proponents say would allow more parents of younger children to run for office. (Boston Globe

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

MassLive looks at how much money individual cities can expect to get if President Biden’s COVID stimulus bill becomes law.

Advocates say that the director of Fitchburg’s only homeless shelter is assaulting clients. (GBH)

Boston might sanction a West Roxbury restaurant for COVID rule violations during a recent Republican Party function held there. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

California-based Curative, the company running three of the state’s six mass vaccination sites, has rocketed from a tiny operation just a year ago. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth walked through the company’s history recently. 

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester plan to go on strike March 8 over staffing demands. (Telegram & Gazette)

Northeastern University is giving leftover vaccine doses to the general campus community after immunizing first responders and other priority recipients. (Boston Globe)

Vaccine registration issues continue for Cape Codders. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 168 confederate symbols were removed across the United States in 2020, including 94 monuments. Nearly all the removals occurred after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Attorney General Maura Healey, former congressman Joe Kennedy III, and other elected leaders and organizations pull endorsements for Tino Capobianco following sexual misconduct allegations. Capobianco is running in a special election for the Winthrop-based House seat vacated by former speaker Bob DeLeo. (GBH) 

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard says he does not intend to run for re-election. (Berkshire Eagle)

Former state representative Byron Rushing endorses Michelle Wu in the Boston mayor’s race. (Boston Herald

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Black Economic Council of Massachusetts is expanding on the heels of a big fundraising drive. (Boston Globe

The meat and egg industry seeks to delay implementation of a 2016 ballot initiative that banned the sale of meat and eggs from tightly caged animals. (Salem News)

Home prices jumped 18.9 percent last month in Worcester, compared with the same month a year ago, reaching an all-time high. (Telegram & Gazette)

A cannabis activist is urging the state’s marijuana companies to sign an “equity” pledge to help minority entrepreneurs enter the industry. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

The Board of Education votes to make permanent rules requiring students who are learning in a remote or hybrid model to have a certain amount of “live” learning. (Salem News)

Smith College denies ex-employee’s claim that the school is hostile to white people. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Illinois becomes the first state to eliminate cash bail. (New York Times)