Teachers union questions safety of 3 feet of social distancing

'Weakening one layer of layered mitigation demands that the other layers must be strengthened,' AFT president says
By: | March 23, 2021
The American Federation of Teachers is calling on the CDC to stress other safety measures if school reduce social distancing requirements to three feet.The American Federation of Teachers is calling on the CDC to stress other safety measures if school reduce social distancing requirements to three feet.

Though the union’s members trust the CDC, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says her organization is not convinced three feet of social distancing is safe for schools.

Last week, the CDC reduced its long-standing physical distancing guidance from six feet to three feet. Several studies have shown that the shorter distance is just as effective in preventing the spread of COVID schools as long as students and teachers continue to wear masks at all time, the agency said.

After reviewing those studies, however, AFT leadership faulted the research for not identifying the other strategies needed to make 3 feet of physical distancing safe, Weingarten said in a letter sent Tuesday to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.


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“Moreover, [the studies] were not conducted in our nation’s highest-density and least-resourced schools, which have poor ventilation, crowding and other structural challenges,” Weingarten wrote. “We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time.”

The studies also made clear that “layered mitigation” strategies must accompany the reduction in social distancing, Weingarten said.

Those strategies include universal and proper masking, which the CDC also stressed in its updated guidelines.

The AFT is also calling for:

  • Effective ventilation
  • Thorough cleaning of buildings
  • Regular COVID-19 testing of teachers, staff and students
  • Effective contact tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols
  • Availability of vaccines to all people in schools who are eligible.

“Weakening one layer of layered mitigation demands that the other layers must be strengthened,” Weingarten wrote. “We strongly urge you, in any discussion of this shift, to forcefully insist on strict and strengthened adherence to the other mitigation strategies.”

The CDC’s guidance said teachers and other adults should continue to maintain  six feet of distance from students.

The raise some immediate logistical questions for the AFT, including:

  1. What is the expectation for teachers in the classroom—that they remain in one spot at the front of the room the entire day, not moving about the classroom?
  2. How will paraprofessionals work in reading circles or other small-group settings?
  3. Will students be 3 feet from each other on buses, but 6 feet from a bus driver or a bus attendant?
  4. With the increased number of in-person students, can we end the practice of concurrently teaching in person and simulcasting to students at home? Alternatively, can we provide guidance on the negative effects of this practice?
  5. What is the expected timeline for implementation of these changes, considering many school systems are just returning to in-person instruction right now, after significant planning based on 6 feet of physical distancing?

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Despite the infusion American Rescue Plan funding, many districts may lack the personnel and institutional planning ability to make the social distancing shift quickly, Weingarten also noted.

The AFT called upon the CDC to release a checklist outlining the safety strategies need to ensure three feet physical distancing is safe and how to implement the change properly.

“We also request that the CDC conduct comparative studies on mitigation efforts in urban, densely populated schools that do not have up-to-date ventilation systems and have been systematically under-resourced for decades,” Weingarten wrote. “This will help in planning for summer and the next school year.”