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Illinois education officials drop 6-foot social distancing requirement to 3 feet

Officials pegged the new guidance released this week as a way to help school districts reopen sooner and with higher student capacity.

Students listen to their teacher at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021.
Students listen to their teacher at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In a move that will be critical to bringing more students back to classrooms but will likely be met with skepticism from teachers and some parents, Illinois education officials reduced the 6-foot social distancing requirement in schools to 3 feet as long as educators are vaccinated.

Officials pegged the new guidance released this week by the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health as a way to help school districts reopen sooner and with higher student capacity.

“It reflects what we have learned about the transmission of COVID-19 in school settings, as more students in Illinois and across the country have returned safely to in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year,” State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala wrote in a letter to school leaders statewide.

“This joint guidance supports the return to in-person instruction as soon as practicable in each community.”

The state’s revised health guidelines come after new instructions from the Centers for Disease Control that prioritized the reopening of schools, as they are “an important part of community infrastructure.

But those federal recommendations still include 6 feet distance between students, a protocol that has been heavily debated in recent weeks. The top education official in Massachusetts announced last month that he would allow children to be 3 feet apart. Colorado, Ohio and Florida are among the other states to disregard the CDC’s guidelines.

In Illinois, masks, contact tracing, school cleaning and hand washing are still key methods to preventing the spread of COVID-19, officials said. But in a major change, the state’s recommended social distancing protocol was halved from 6 feet to 3 feet for students and fully vaccinated staff.

“Maintaining 6 feet remains the safest distance, but schools can operate at no less than 3 feet in order to provide in-person learning,” the state guidance said.

Unvaccinated staff should still keep 6 feet social distance because they remain more vulnerable to infection, officials said. And 6 feet is required “when face masks are removed in limited situations” that are high-risk, such as lunch.

Educators who were already worried about their health and safety while working in-person are sure to voice their concerns about these revised guidelines. Large districts such as Chicago Public Schools and those in Elgin, Rockford and Joliet already had class-size concerns before the pandemic.

But with many districts operating with fewer than half their students back in-person — including CPS at 29% — the state’s new social distancing recommendations may not come into play this spring for lots of schools.

The switch could be vital for districts looking to welcome more students back to classrooms, especially in the fall — if less space is required between desks, more can fit in a single room. That could also help principals facing staffing shortages since, under these guidelines, classes could be consolidated if not enough teachers are available.

ISBE and IDPH also no longer recommend symptom screenings on school grounds, instead advising districts to require all assessments to be done virtually in the morning ahead of the school day.

“The past year has been a long, challenging road for all of us,” Ayala wrote. “One year later, I am grateful and encouraged to see us rounding the corner.

“Everyone who works in our schools – you are all heroes for leading us through this pandemic.”