CDC’s Walensky Explains Changing School Distancing Recommendation

February 15, 2021 Updated: February 15, 2021

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defended telling educators last year that social distancing in schools of three feet was “quite safe,” while new reopening guidance from her agency says six feet of distancing is recommended.

“Over the summer, we were at much less disease, and our guidance is a bit more flexible in terms of the distancing if you are at low rates of transmission, those rates that we were seeing over the summer,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Feb. 14.

“The other thing I want to just highlight is that a lot’s changed since July. We know, we have a lot more science. We have over 60 references accompanying our school guidance. Many, if not most of those references have been experiences that have happened in the fall, both here in the United States and in Europe, as well as new data on variants, which we weren’t talking about over the summer. So, I think one of the lessons learned here is, we have to be humble as to what we’re learning and be willing to be flexible as we learn more,” she added.

Walensky was speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Before she was selected to lead the agency, Walensky in the summer of 2020 told the mayor of her hometown in Massachusetts that “if people are masked, it is quite safe and much more practical to be at three feet,” emails obtained by a group of parents showed.

Parents in Newton pointed to the recommendation when questioning why officials in the town were against fully reopening schools. The officials said it wasn’t possible, citing guidance from its health department that recommended six feet of distancing.

Newtown Public Schools’s (NPS) “decision to ignore the three-foot expert recommendation prevented Newton from fully opening schools,” Dr. Stefanos Kales, a professor at Harvard Medical School, wrote in a blog post. “Newton owes taxpayers, parents, and children some explanations.”

Some groups have said a minimum distance of three feet is appropriate, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (pdf).

“Some countries have been able to successfully reopen schools after first controlling community-wide spread of SARS-CoV-2 while using three feet of distance between students without increases in community spread. Physical distance between desks should follow current public health guidance, and desks should be placed at least three feet apart and ideally six feet apart,” the academy said in reopening guidance.

SARS-CoV-2 is the strain of coronavirus, also known as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, that causes the disease COVID-19.

Epoch Times Photo
A student works on a computer at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo, Utah, on Feb. 10, 2021. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The CDC’s new guidance, published last week, repeatedly states that six feet of distancing should be targeted when reopening schools. Walensky told reporters in a call about the guidance that, along with masking, “physical distance of at least six feet” should be required “across the school environment.”

Joseph Allen, associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Helen Jenkins, an associate professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health, criticized the guidance.

“The CDC emphasizes maintaining six feet of distancing, even between kids. But that ignores the science on children, transmission and the power of layered risk-reduction measures,” they wrote in an op-ed. “Ultimately, this six-foot distancing rule is what will keep most kids out of school simply because of space limitations.”

The CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the origin of the six-foot guidance.

A spokesperson for the City of Newton told The Epoch Times via email: “The Newton Public Schools and City of Newton have consistently used recommendations from the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.”

Walensky said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the distancing guidance can be flexible, depending on the amount of community transmission of the virus in the school’s locale.

“Our guidance is really dependent on how much disease is in the community. We know that most of the disease that comes into the school comes into the community. And with universal mask-wearing, we know that there’s very limited transmission within the schools, and that that transmission is largely from staff to staff and largely when those masks are, mask-wearing is breached,” she said.

“So, we are more flexible with the six feet if there’s limited amount of community spread in those low to moderate ranges. When you get to substantial and high ranges of community spread, we really feel like you need six feet. The data suggests, the science suggests, you need six feet with universal mask-wearing to keep our children and our staff safe.”

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