Washington changes social distancing minimum requirement in schools to 3 feet apart

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new guideline as schools begin to re-open for in-person learning, scaling back on social distancing recommendations.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that people stay six feet apart. 

Earlier this month, the CDC said students can have their desks three feet apart but should keep the six-foot distance from one another at sporting events, assemblies, lunch or chorus practice.

Washington Association of School Administrators Executive Director Joel Aune said the additional flexibility on social distancing guidelines allows more schools to safely welcome more students back for in-person classroom instruction.

In a March 8 letter to the governor and State Health Secretary Umair Shah, the association called for flexibility on this rule, based on a growing body of research supporting revised social distancing in schools.

"Today’s statement from Gov. Inslee is welcome news, particularly for those districts already positioned to bring more students back on campus for in-person learning," said Aune. "Some districts will need more time to adjust and plan under this new guidance, though this development puts everyone on a pathway to more fully reopen schools for in-person learning by the fall."

Inslee said the three-feet requirement is the minimum; school districts still have the option to keep students six feet apart. 

However, by this summer and the fall, no school district should be using the six-foot minimum between students, Inslee said.

Having the desks closer together can allow for more students in the classroom.

The six feet apart recommendation has been an issue for schools as they try to re-open. 

RELATED: Parents and teachers disagree on how to safely return to in-person learning

While there is evidence of improved mental health and other benefits from in-person schooling, "we don't really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread," said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force.

The new 3-foot CDC guidance also recommends: 

  • Removing recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks. "We don't have a lot of evidence of their effectiveness" in preventing transmission, Massetti said.
  • Advising at least 3 feet of space between desks in elementary schools, even in towns and cities where community spread is high, so long as students and teachers wear masks and take other precautions.
  • Spacing can also be 3 feet in middle and high schools, so long as there is not a high level of spread in the community. If there is, spacing should be at least 6 feet.

Earlier this month, Inslee signed an emergency proclamation that required districts to allow for in-person learning by April. 

By April 5, all K-6 students must have the option to return to the classroom for a hybrid learning model. 

By April 19, all other K-12 students must have the same option to return part-time. All school districts must offer at least 30 percent of its weekly instructional hours on-campus for all students - a minimum of 2 days a week- at this time.

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