As Hawaii’s public schools gear up to reopen next month, one question has proved to be a lightning rod of concern: How close is too close in the classroom?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend seating students “at least six feet apart when feasible.” So when schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said children’s desks could be as close as 3 feet if facing forward, it set off howls of protest.
The president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Corey Rosenlee, called the plan “ludicrous” and “dangerous.” And heated testimony has piled up online for today’s Board of Education meeting.
“I strongly urge you to mandate the 6 ft social distancing in the classrooms,” wrote Naomi Noguchi, a teacher and parent. “Everywhere else in the state requires 6 ft social distancing; so why not for students and teachers?”
Amy Suzuki, a special education teacher who also has children in public school, agreed: “The thought of schools allowing three feet distancing when the current health recommendation is six feet distancing is appalling,” she wrote.
Although it came as a surprise to many, state Health Director Bruce Anderson and state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park recommended 3 to 6 feet of spacing in classrooms after weighing the risk of infection versus the benefits to children of being in school.
Those distances also align with the latest advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which calls for placing students’ desks “three to six feet apart when feasible.”
The academy strongly advocates having students attend school in person, saying it is important not just academically but for kids’ social, emotional and physical health. Plus, reopening schools benefits not just the children but the whole community.
In assessing risk, the academy noted that children and adolescents appear less likely to contract the coronavirus or have severe symptoms, and also less likely to infect others.
“Evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic,” the academy wrote in its Guidance for School Re-Entry. “Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”
In Hawaii, sticking to the 6-foot rule could limit the number of students in a classroom to eight or fewer — meaning that most could not attend. If classroom-spacing requirements reduce the time children are in school, the harm may outweigh potential benefits, the academy concluded.
Surveys of teachers have revealed that many Hawaii students missed out on much of their education when schools switched to distance learning after spring break due to the coronavirus.
‘There is no clear formula on this,” Anderson said. “We are learning as we go what the real risks are, but at least 3 feet would be important if people are side by side facing the front of the room.
“With people facing each other, we feel very strongly that you should have a 6-foot distance between an individual for prolonged periods of time,” he said.
Face coverings — or the lack thereof — are another flashpoint. The Department of Education’s school reopening plan requires adults to wear masks when coming within 3 feet of another person and recommends it at other times.
Meanwhile, children should wear masks when they are less than 6 feet apart or when facing each other, the plan says, but they are not required to wear them in the classroom if their desks are 3 feet apart and they are facing the same way.
That came as a shock to many local residents, who are used to putting on face masks whenever they enter stores, offices and other public indoor settings.
“My biggest concern is with masks being optional,” Nancy Hilson, 64, who teaches at Ewa Makai Middle School, wrote in an email to the Board of Education. “I feel this is a huge mistake. Why mandate teachers’ wearing of masks and not students?”
Second-grade teacher Rebecca Hirakami, who has been on the front lines teaching summer school, found it was important that her students were seated 6 feet apart, even while facing the same direction. Many fiddled with their masks and had trouble keeping them on.
“I believe it is not safe for students to sit only three feet apart when facing the same direction,” Hirakami wrote to board members. “With the younger kids especially, it was difficult to have them keep their masks on, not to continually touch their masks … . I had to provide the students with breaks from the face masks for a few minutes due to irritation around their chins and noses.”
Students would naturally turn toward each other to discuss things or share their learning or thoughts, she said. That was OK when they were 6 feet apart but not if they were closer, she added.
“They need at least some discussion/interaction during class time in order to learn, especially since group work, cooperative learning, learning centers, etc. are not feasible at this time,” Hirakami said.
Another major component of the DOE’s reopening plan is to keep the same group of students with the same dedicated teacher all day if possible, especially for elementary school children. Remaining in such cohorts or “bubbles” reduces the potential for infection to spread.
“We believe that will be helpful in ensuring that students are getting the education they need so much and at the same time are not exposing themselves unnecessarily to disease,” Anderson said.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, the Board of Education will hold a virtual business meeting at 1:30 p.m. today, with no physical location for the meeting. Members of the public may listen online or by phone.
>> To testify orally, sign up at 808ne.ws/BOE09.
>> To listen online, go to webex.com to register to join the meeting and use meeting number 120 069 5672 and password “joinmeeting.”
>> To join by phone, call toll-free 844-621-3956 and enter the same access code and attendee ID number “#” (pound key).
>> For more detailed instructions, go to boe.hawaii.gov.
>> Send questions comments or concerns via email to BOE.Hawaii@boe.hawaii.gov or call 586-3334.