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State updates school reopening guidance, bringing it in line with smaller physical distancing recommendations

State updates school reopening guidance, bringing it in line with smaller physical distancing recommendations

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ROANOKE — State leaders have updated Virginia’s school reopening guidance, reflecting new physical distancing guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The state’s guidance was updated Monday with a letter sent to local school districts and published without fanfare on the Virginia Department of Education’s website.

The updated guidance calls for “a combination of face coverings and a minimum of” 3 feet distance when 6 feet of physical distancing is not feasible. Still, the guidance says, schools should aim for 6 feet “to the greatest extent possible,” especially in areas with more community transmission.

This brings the guidelines in line with guidance published last week by the AAP, which stated that a minimum of 3 feet distancing “may approach the benefits” of 6 feet, especially with face coverings.

“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,” the organization said. The AAP also encouraged the goal of “having students physically present in school.”

Parents advocating for the option to return to the classroom daily have pointed to the guidance as a way to safely allow more students to return to the classroom.

Most proposed reopening plans unveiled by local Virginia school districts so far involve a combination of in- person and remote learning, along with a 100% remote option.

The guidance also reflects Virginia’s transition to Phase 3, with large school gatherings limited to 250 people.

The state’s updated guidance incorporates recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization — which also discusses a minimum of 3 feet distancing — and the AAP. The guidance may change as state health leaders learn more, the update states.

Last week, Roanoke County Superintendent Ken Nicely reported to the school board that Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health District, said it was reasonable for younger students to distance at 3 feet in combination with face coverings.

In Monday’s letter to superintendents and local school districts, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane wrote that the update reflects “the latest science, and the best public health guidance and recommendations available intended to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in school settings.”

“Researchers agree that children are not contracting the new coronavirus at the same rate as adults,” the letter says. “However, data has yet to show whether young children transmit the new coronavirus at a similar rate as adults.”

Following preventive strategies may help prevent frequent school closures once the school year begins, the state officials wrote.

They also reiterated that final reopening decisions rest “squarely in the hands” of local school boards. Local leaders, they wrote, are best positioned to make decisions based on localities’ unique needs and limitations.

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