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U.S. health officials are relaxing social distancing recommendations for schools

Dan Clark New York Now

(WXXI News & AP) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is updating its guidance for schools.

On Friday, the CDC said it now recommends that with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings

The revised recommendations represent a turn away from the 6-foot standard that has sharply limited how many students some schools can accommodate

But it’s immediate impact in New York state is not clear, since it’s up to the state health department that will further clarify what the guidelines will be for local school districts.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza issued a joint statement Friday saying that the CDC guidelines are a welcome clarification of rules that would allow schools to further reopen safely.

The two county officials sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker urging the state to adopt the new CDC guidelines.

Bello and Mendoza say that adopting the CDC guidelines would allow elementary schools to soon begin offering full time in-person classes and provide clear guidance on when middle and high schools could begin to do the same. 

Students can safely sit just 3 feet apart in the classroom as long as they wear masks but should be kept the usual 6 feet away from one another at sporting events, assemblies, lunch or chorus practice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in relaxing its COVID-19 guidelines.

In recent months, schools in some states have been disregarding the CDC guidelines, using 3 feet as their standard. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force.

The new CDC guidance:

- Removes 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.

- Advises 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.

- Says 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, the distance should be at least 6 feet.

The CDC said 6 feet should still be maintained in common areas, such as school lobbies, and when masks can't be worn, such as when eating.

Also, students should be kept 6 feet apart in situations where there are a lot of people talking, cheering or singing, all of which can expel droplets containing the coronavirus. That includes chorus practice, assemblies and sports events.

Teachers and other adults should continue to stay 6 feet from one another and from students, the CDC said.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.