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New State Guidance in Physical Distancing for K-12 Schools

New York State has released revised guidance in accordance with the updated CDC guidance on social distancing issued on March 19.

The amended NYS Interim COVID-19 Guidance for Schools incorporates the updated directions made by the CDC in March including:

  • Revised physical distancing recommendations to reflect at least 3 feet between students in classrooms and provide clearer guidance when a greater distance (such as 6 feet) is recommended.

  • Clarified that ventilation is a component of strategies to clean and maintain healthy facilities.

  • Removed recommendation for physical barriers.

  • Clarified the role of community transmission levels in decision-making.

  • Added guidance on interventions when clusters occur.

We recommend our K-12 partners carefully review these new guidelines to determine their individual plans moving forward. At HUNT we are also staying up to date with these changes in order to support and assist our clients.

Highlights of the revised NYS Interim COVID-19 Guidance for Schools are listed below.

Physical Distancing (pages 7-9)

  • Responsible Parties may reduce physical distancing requirements to a minimum of three feet between students in classroom settings, subject to adherence to certain mitigation measures herein.

  • Due to evidence that transmission risk ranges by the age of the student, the CDC recommends that physical distancing requirements differ by grade level and community transmission risk. Evidence indicates that there is lower susceptibility and incidence of COVID-19 among younger children than compared to teenagers; therefore, in-person instruction represents less risk of on-site transmission in elementary schools compared to middle and high schools. At some levels of community transmission, cohorting is recommended if a school is using less than six feet of physical distance in classrooms. The Department recognizes that certain scenarios may prevent physical distancing from occurring, such as providing essential classroom instruction, medical care, or student comfort/support. Responsible Parties must minimize this contact to the greatest extent possible and continue to ensure appropriate prevention8 measures—such as cleaning/disinfection, masking, hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette—are maintained during these temporary episodes. Please refer to the Interim Guidance for School-Based Health Centers Regarding COVID-19 for further information.

    • CDC has developed four levels of indicators and threshold for community transmission of COVID-19. Please refer to Table 1 in the CDC guidance to see the measures. CDC also provides recommendations for physical distancing and cohorting for elementary, middle, and high schools at each level of transmission. These recommendations are summarized below and are required to be adhered to by any responsible parties when implementing physical distancing of less than six feet in classrooms. Please refer to Table 2 in the CDC guidance for more detail.

    • In counties with low and moderate risk of transmission, elementary, middle, and high schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms.

    • In counties with substantial risk of transmission, elementary, middle, and high schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms and cohorting is recommended when possible.

    • In counties with high risk of transmission, elementary schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms and cohorting is recommended when possible. However, in middle and high schools three feet between students in classrooms is recommended only when schools can use cohorting. When schools cannot maintain cohorting, middle and high schools must maintain physical distancing of at least six feet between students in classrooms.

  • Exceptions Where A Minimum of Six Feet of Distance Must be Maintained

    • Six feet is always the required distancing between adults (teachers, staff, visitors) and between students and adults.

    • Six feet of distance is required when eating meals or snacks, or drinking, or other times masks must be removed. This may mean that meals cannot be eaten in classrooms that have been converted to three feet of physical distance during instruction time.

Physical Barriers (page 8)

  • The CDC no longer recommends physical barriers for mitigation where physical distancing cannot be maintained. A preferred approach is enhanced ventilation and air filtration to dilute and remove any SARS-Cov-2 particles from the air as described below and in the CDC school guidance.

Community Input (page 9)

  • Prior to making any change to reduce physical distancing to less than six feet between students during academic instruction, decisions must be made with community input.

  • Responsible Parties must include opportunities for feedback from parents, community members, teachers, staff and local departments of health. This meeting must be held before any change to the physical distancing in schools can be made.

  • Responsible parties must post the new plan online and must be sent to Local Health Departments and the State Education Department.

  • Responsible Parties are required to work with the school community (parents, teachers, staff, LHDs, etc.) to propose and adopt changes. Ultimately, the school/district’s decision to move to shorter physical distances will come down to a local community’s risk tolerance based on its unique circumstances.

In-Person Instruction (page 13)

  • While the goal is to return all students to in-person instruction, due to the dynamic nature and risk of community transmission of COVID-19, Responsible Parties should prepare for a combination of in-person instruction and remote learning to facilitate a phased-in approach or hybrid model, which may be necessary at various times throughout the 2020-2021 school year. In such approaches and models, Responsible Parties may use video or teleconferencing in lieu of in-person gatherings (e.g., classes, office hours), per CDC guidance.

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