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Students can be 3 feet apart in classrooms, state health officials say

Uniondale acting Superintendent Rhonda Taylor greets ninth-graders returning

Uniondale acting Superintendent Rhonda Taylor greets ninth-graders returning to school on March 8. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Students can now sit 3 feet rather than 6 feet apart in school classrooms, new state Department of Health guidance says.

The new recommendations, released quietly on Friday and in effect immediately, leave the decision on whether to reduce the distance to school districts. Before making a change, each district or school — private schools also are covered by the guidelines — must get input from parents, community members, health departments, teachers and staff, the state health department said.

Three weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released similar recommendations.

Rhonda Taylor, the acting superintendent for the Uniondale Union Free School District, says she is "really excited the state has caught up with the science that is showing that as long as we’re able to maintain a level of control in the classroom, that we can go to 3 feet and thereby bring more kids back. Our aim has always been to bring more kids back into the school, but safely."

Most parents in Uniondale who have had the option for in-person instruction have kept their children with remote learning, though more have been sending their children into school buildings as vaccinations have ramped up, and that's a trend Taylor expects to continue.

Many children feel isolated learning via computer, she said.

"In-person instruction is the best mode of instruction for our scholars," Taylor said.

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Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, said his schools now have enough space to keep desks 6 feet apart, but as more parents are comfortable with in-person instruction for their children, that could change.

Heidenreich, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, predicted districts would hear a range of opinions from parents, with some supporting moving to 3 feet and others saying they’d pull their kids out of the classroom and return to remote learning if students sat closer together.

"Whether or not districts move from 6 feet to 3 feet is going to vary from community to community," he said.

Last month, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the Nassau health department backed the CDC's 3-foot guidance.

In a statement Saturday, Nassau spokeswoman Christine Geed said, "The Department of Health just received this new New York State guidance and is currently reviewing it."

Suffolk County officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The state guidance says the one exception to the 3-foot rule is for middle and high schools in counties "with high risk of transmission," when students must be 6 feet apart unless the same group of students is together all day.

In addition, children must remain 6 feet apart when eating or drinking, and teachers must be 6 feet apart when interacting with each other.

The requirement for masks and temperature checks will remain, the state said.

As school officials reacted to the new rules, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said the state’s 7-day coronavirus test positivity rate declined slightly on Friday, from 3.37% to 3.31%. Long Island again had the second highest rate of the state’s 10 regions: 4.05%.

Fifty-seven New Yorkers — including five in Suffolk and two in Nassau — died of COVID-19 on Friday.

Hospitalizations fell Friday to 4,241, the lowest statewide total since Dec. 3.

Of the 7,283 positive test results statewide, 619 were in Suffolk and 556 were in Nassau.

The state reported that more than 280,000 vaccine doses were administered between Thursday and Friday mornings, bringing the total to more than 11.6 million.

Statewide, 36.9% of New Yorkers have received at least one dose, and 23.9% are fully vaccinated.

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