Back in July 2020, the Newton, Mass., school district was trying to figure out how to safely reopen schools and how to keep a safe distance between people. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller emailed a Harvard professor of medicine and chief of infectious disease to weigh in, asking, “On a policy issue, we are leaning to 6’ of separation in our classrooms rather than the 3’ that DESE/WHO allow. Thoughts?”
The reply from Harvard’s chief of infectious disease was clear:
I do think if people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet. I think this is very viable for the middle/high schools and even late grade schools and would improve the feasibility. I suspect you may want to be at 6f for some of the very young kids who can’t mask.
She also referred the town leaders to Harvard’s COVID-19 School and Community Resource Library document, which included links to many studies concluding that three feet was sufficient in a school environment and declared, “a distance of three feet (torso to torso) is likely low-risk in asymptomatic individuals wearing masks.”
Harvard’s chief of infectious disease in July was . . . Rochelle Walensky, now the director of the CDC.
Except after Walensky became CDC director, she recommended “physical distancing of at least 6 feet between people with cohorting or podding of students to minimize exposure across the school environment.” People fairly asked why three feet was an acceptable distance for Massachusetts schools last summer, but six feet was the needed distance now across the country. For most schools, spacing out the students by six feet was more or less impossible, and the six-feet guideline required them to, at most, have half the student body attending on alternating days.
Earlier this week, President Obama’s CDC director Tom Frieden told the Washington Post, “Look, 100 feet is safer than six feet, which is safer than three feet. Is three feet okay for most schools? Absolutely, if they mask, if they repeatedly identify cases and isolate and quarantine.” (It’s hard to argue that Frieden doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or wants to recklessly endanger America’s children.)
Now the CDC is expected to revise its guidelines to declare three feet of separation is acceptable. Which is great, except . . . one can’t help but wonder if Walensky’s flip-flopping, from three to six and back to three again, reflected pressures from a new Democratic administration that did not want to antagonize teachers’ unions.