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As schools prepare to reopen, the gap between 3 and 6 feet is feeling hard to bridge

Miguel Diaz washed the floors of a classroom with help from Michael McIntosh. Custodians are cleaning the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Mattapan and doing other preparations for the reopening of school.
Miguel Diaz washed the floors of a classroom with help from Michael McIntosh. Custodians are cleaning the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Mattapan and doing other preparations for the reopening of school.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Governor Charlie Baker released guidelines for reopening schools, one measure seemed to come out of left field: In an effort to get as many students as possible back into their classrooms this fall, he would allow schools to practice only 3 feet of social distancing instead of the standard 6 feet, sparking a passionate debate across the state.

Teacher unions adamantly oppose the idea, calling it “a path of disaster.” Many parents are up in arms, and some districts, such as Boston and Lexington, have already rejected the lower standard.

“It’s really anxiety-provoking,” said Sharita Fauche, a co-director of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, whose children attend Brooke Charter School in Mattapan. “For parents who have really abided by the shelter-in-place advisory, you are now exposing your kids to other kids by sending them to school, and you don’t know what the safety practices of those other kids are in their homes.”

President Trump stepped into the fray last week, demanding school districts nationwide resume in-person classes for all students five days a week or lose federal funding, adding more pressure on Massachusetts districts to relax social distancing.

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Meanwhile, a growing number of infectious disease experts and pediatricians support Massachusetts’ lower social-distancing standard because it is combined with other safety measures, such as requiring masks and having all desks face forward. They argue that the risk of children getting the coronavirus is low, while the academic, social, and emotional harm they would incur by staying out of school is far greater.

The swirling debate over social distancing exemplifies how difficult it will be for local districts to reopen school buildings after the pandemic forced their closure in March, especially in convincing a nervous public that everyone will be safe. A Suffolk University poll recently found almost half of white parents and 60 percent of Black and Latino parents doubted schools would have adequate safety measures.

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There’s good reason for the concern. Schools are notoriously germy. Many school buildings statewide were constructed decades ago and lack adequate ventilation. And budget cuts have winnowed custodians and left some schools, particularly in Boston, short on soap, paper towels, and hand sanitizers.

Although state officials prefer at least 6 feet of social distancing in schools, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges, they recognized many schools are tight on space. The 3-foot cutoff is based on recommendations from the World Health Organization and an analysis published by The Lancet that examined 44 studies on distancing measures. The analysis found that a little more than 3 feet of social distancing — plus masks and goggles — provided a good degree of protection from the coronavirus, although 6 feet was better.

Jeffrey Riley, state education commissioner, defended the lower standard, noting that the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the guidelines.

“Given the data we have at this time in Massachusetts, and given the medical parameters we put in [the guidelines], we believe we have offered districts a path to get as many students as possible into school this fall,” he said.

But with infection rates rising in other states, many educators and parents worry that Massachusetts’ rate will spike again. Increasing their concern: The WHO, under pressure from more than 200 scientists worldwide, updated its guidance last week to acknowledge that coronavirus particles can linger in the air in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces.

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Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, who signed the WHO letter, said the updated guidance shouldn’t be used broadly as a reason to keep school buildings closed. Loosening social-distancing standards in classrooms should be OK if other measures, such as masks and good air ventilation, are part of the strategy, said Allen, who supports the state guidelines.

Having schools open, he said, is critical because students could incur more academic and emotional harm if they remain at home, particularly in households where food insecurity and neglect are problems.

But he added that more attention must be paid to improving air quality in schools, Allen recently cowrote the book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity,” which highlighted data that showed most schools don’t meet the minimum standards for air ventilation.

“We talk about essential workers and essential services, but where are schools in this priority?” he said.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the virus, the state’s three largest teachers unions are pushing for a phased-in return to school and 6 feet of social distancing.

“We are heading down a path of disaster, and the lives of the children and adults in the buildings are at stake,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

But some students, fed up with online learning, say they have no problem with loosening social distancing. Alejandra De La Cruz, an incoming senior at Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain, said she is OK with 3 feet, especially if all students can return.

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However, she described the state’s mask requirement as impractical.

“Students are not going to wear a mask for nine hours,” she said. “As soon as kids hit the school building, they will take them off. It’s hard to breathe in a mask.”

Some superintendents say they like the flexibility on social distancing, noting classroom sizes vary and science labs often have fixed work stations.

New Bedford’s superintendent, Thomas Anderson, said his goal is to hit 6 feet, but is wondering if some deviation could accommodate substantially more students.

“With 6 feet, we will have to make modifications to classrooms and access libraries, gyms, and other large spaces for learning,” he said.

In Haverhill, the social-distancing guidelines have created controversy. Anthony Parolisi, president of the Haverhill Education Association, said school officials have measured 3 feet of social distancing in various classrooms, rearranged desks, and moved furniture out. Teachers, he said, are concerned about whether 3 feet is safe and how social distancing will change teaching, especially hands-on group projects.

“While many teachers want to go back to the classroom, they are worried they are being put into a test tube as an experiment to see what will happen,” he said.

On Monday, Superintendent Margaret Marotta told the Globe the district has not made any decisions yet about classes in the fall, “although we do believe it is likely physically possible to fit all the students into our schools with 3-feet distance.”

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For other superintendents, less than 6 feet is a nonstarter. Lexington’s superintendent, Julie Hackett, who is planning to alternate in-person and remote learning this fall, said 3 feet of social distancing was similar to the space that usually exists between students at their desks. She decided 6-feet was better, after conferring with students, teachers, parents, and the Board of Health.

“It seems premature to be talking about a full return,” she said, noting coronavirus research on children is still emerging and the district needs to be mindful of its employees.

The Boston Public Schools, after consulting with the city’s Public Health Commission, is moving forward with plans to mark its floors with 6-feet indicators, even as it scours the city for additional classroom space. Officials don’t know if they will reopen full-scale.

“We are sticking with the 6 feet of distance,” said Jonathan Palumbo, a school spokesman. “Six feet between students. Six feet between students and teachers. Six feet between staff. Six feet while traveling through hallways.”

At least one study has raised questions about reopening schools fully after running a computational modeling of disease spread in schools to evaluate the effectiveness of different strategies to prevent coronavirus infections.

The study — performed by Mathematica, a research and consulting group in Princeton, N.J. — found that dividing students into groups and alternating them between in-person and remote learning may be substantially safer than bringing all students back simultaneously. The model assumed 6 feet of social distancing and anticipated that students wouldn’t be fully compliant with masks.

”You can have more confidence that you can reduce infection spread if kids are not there every day, but it’s a tough trade-off,” said Brian Gill, a senior fellow and director at Mathematica’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory. “Having kids in school less than five days a week is extremely demanding on families and may not be educationally great.”

Terri Sabol, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, warned that school systems will also need to consider how social distancing will alter in-person learning and perhaps diminish the benefits of a full-scale return.

Schools have moved significantly away from desk-bound learning, she said, and now bustle with activity.

“I think the real challenge for schools is how do you provide developmentally appropriate, high-quality learning experiences while maintaining safety of students and staff,” said Sabol, a former elementary school teacher. “You walk into any high-quality classroom, it’s active.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.