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LI schools, seeking return of more students, await updated COVID-19 guidelines

Perry Fuchs, left, teaches astronomy class at Plainedge

Perry Fuchs, left, teaches astronomy class at Plainedge High School to socially distanced, shielded students in September. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

As a national debate emerges over how far apart people should be in schools — 6 feet or 3 feet — Long Island school leaders say they're waiting for the state to update reopening guidelines before considering changes to COVID-19 distancing protocols.

Educators agreed that they want more students back in schools. Six-foot distancing guidelines, however, don't allow them to bring all students back at once, due to limited space in classrooms.

"What we have to do, and what we’ve always done, is follow the science. And it seems like there’s a growing body of research saying 3 feet would be an appropriate distance in schools," with physical barriers such as desk shields in place, said Lawrence Superintendent Ann Pedersen.

A study released earlier this month in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found positive coronavirus rates among students and staff were similar in districts that adopted 3-foot physical distancing rules and those that adopted 6-foot distancing. It stated that "lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety."

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports 3-feet minimum distancing in classrooms, as does the World Health Organization. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent guidance for reopening schools states desks should be spaced "at least 6 feet apart when feasible."

CDC leaders are now considering whether students can be seated closer together with masks and other physical partitions. Many districts have been adhering to CDC standards in addition to state guidelines when implementing reopening procedures amid the pandemic.

Commack Superintendent Donald James wrote to the state March 8 to request 3 feet of social distancing for districts that have desk shields, masking and disinfecting protocols in place. He said in the letter that he’s asked the state Department of Health more than 10 times for clarity on social distancing rules since the academic year began. Commack has allowed certain grades to return in-person full time.

"The sooner the [state Health Department] releases written guidance on this as we’ve requested in writing, the better for our students," James said in an email.

Lawrence school district has about 2,500 students and was one of the first on Long Island to be labeled a hot spot by the state in the fall due to a high positivity rate in the community.

Many students in the district, about 40%, are still on a remote-only plan by choice, Pedersen said Tuesday. The district follows a hybrid model, she said.

"For Lawrence [school district], we’re staying at 6 feet and awaiting the CDC guidance to change," Pedersen said.

She added that state health guidance for schools hasn’t changed since it was issued in August. She said that the social distancing rules of 6 feet needs to be "defined more clearly."

In a statement emailed Tuesday, the state Department of Health said it's reviewing guidance but emphasized that it remains in effect as is.

"School district leadership must engage their community of educators, families, students, local governments and local departments of health to develop a local plan to operate schools safely," read the statement. "Ultimately, this is a local decision and school districts across the state have successfully and safely reopened following these parameters."

In the Longwood Central School District, where more than 9,000 K-12 students attend school in Suffolk County, students have returned to school four days, with Wednesdays being left as a virtual school day.

The 6-foot rule "was definitely compromised when students returned for four days," said Josephine Libassi, president of the Middle Island Teachers Association.

The association is a local chapter of New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, and represents 840 teachers, teaching assistants and nurses in the Longwood district.

"I don’t think that creating a closer threshold and still calling it social distancing is really the way we want to go in trying to move more kids back to school," Libassi said.

The association worked with Walgreens to hold a vaccine day on Saturday. About 600 Longwood district staff and teachers were vaccinated that day, she said.

"With more access to vaccines on the horizon, we’re moving toward a time that will be safe for everyone to come back for a more normal school experience for teachers and kids," Libassi said.

NYSUT president Andy Pallotta recently said at a news conference that the union supports less than 6 feet distancing so long as the CDC supports it and there are physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, in place. "There’s a push to have more students in school, and we’re saying we agree," Pallotta said. "It’s everything coming together — the testing, the tracing, the disinfecting. We shouldn’t have less than 6 feet unless there are barriers."

With AP

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