3 feet distance now OK in most cases in Pennsylvania schools, officials say

Daveen Rae Kurutz
Beaver County Times

It's no longer the 6-foot rule, but the 3-foot rule.

Pennsylvania officials announced new recommendations Tuesday for how schools should handle social distancing and COVID-19 cases in school buildings. 

"We recognize the critical importance of in-person instruction and hope that this along with updates to our recommendations," Department of Education Deputy Secretary Matt Stem said. "Ensuring student success and well-being is the highest priority for the Department of Education."

Pennsylvania officials announced Tuesday that three feet of distance between students in now acceptable social distancing recommendations in schools, aligning with new CDC guidelines.

Rather than requiring children to be at least 6 feet apart, elementary students may be 3 feet apart in the classroom. For those in middle and high schools, 3 feet is acceptable in counties with low and moderate community transmission.

In counties with substantial levels of community spread, 6 feet is still the recommendation. Six feet also remains the rule for distance between adults and between adults and students; for when masks can't be worn during eating; and during activities where increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, sports and exercise, as well as in common areas.

"When schools are rigorously following all the other preventative measures ... the level of transmission is not substantially different at a 3-foot distance between children versus 6 feet," said Dr. Wendy Braund. Department of Health COVID-19 Response director. "We know that child-to-child transmission is relatively rate and that transmission in schools is most often among the adults."

Masking is still a requirement at all grade levels. 

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The state also has changed the recommendations for how long a school has to be closed if there are cases of COVID-19, Braund said. In cases where there is just one student or staff member who tests positive, the school does not need to close. If fewer than five individuals in the same building test positive, that building will only be closed for one or two days.

If more than five individuals are testing positive, schools will be closed for five days. 

However, if the cases are detected in counties with substantial levels of community spread, the state recommends that schools should consider altering schedules to significantly decrease the number of students on campus. In schools where two to four individuals have tested positive, the buildings should be closed for two to three days, but where there are five or more individuals with COVID-19 the school should be closed for five days. 

Braund said that if a school building is closed, extracurricular activities, including school sports, must also be cancelled.

"It is essential for us to remember that if cases are at a level in a school that require the building to close the school must suspend all in-person instruction and extracurriculars, including school sports, in that building," Braund said. "We must remember that the vaccine is our path to a new tomorrow."

Braund said that the state continues to address vaccine equity across communities and vaccine hesitancy among teachers. As of Tuesday, the state's program to vaccinate teachers and childcare workers had vaccinated 112,172 individuals. Braund did not indicate what percentage of teachers that represents, but said the state plans to complete that initiative this week. 

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for the Beaver County Times. You can reach her quickly at dkurutz@timesonline.com. Give her a follow on Twitter @DK_NewsData