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CDPH Modifies Physical Distance Requirements For Schools
On March 20, 2021, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) updated the COVID-19 and Reopening In-Person Instruction Framework & Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools in California, 2020-2021 School Year, to modify some of the physical distance requirements between students in the classroom.
Prior to the updates, the CDPH required, at least 6 feet of distance between student chairs “except where 6 feet of distance is not possible after a good-faith effort has been made”, and “[u]nder no circumstances should distance between student chairs be less than 4 feet.” The CDPH now states the following:
Maximize space between seating and desks… Maintaining a minimum of 3 feet between student chairs is strongly recommended. A range of physical distancing recommendations has been made nationally and internationally, from 3 feet to 6 feet. Considerations for schools implementing a shorter physical distancing policy between students: focus on high mask adherence—if there are doubts about mask adherence, consider more robust physical distancing practices; consider enhancing other mitigation layers, such as stable groups or ventilation; maintain 6 feet of distancing as much as possible during times when students or staff are not masked (e.g., due to eating or drinking).
The new CDPH updates include the requirement that 6 feet of distance are maintained as much as possible between students when eating meals indoors. The CDPH still strongly recommends a distance of more than 6 feet during singing and band practice, which is only permitted to be held outdoors at this time and requires 6 feet of distance between staff and faculty desks and students and between staff on campus.
The CDPH updates were likely triggered by updates made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) on March 19, 2021, to its Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Prevention and Operating Schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations, recommending at least 3 feet of distance between students in the classroom and clarifying when a distance greater than 3 feet is recommended. The CDC now recommends that elementary school students be at least 3 feet apart in the classroom. For middle school and high schools, the CDC now recommends that students be at least 3 feet apart in the classroom in areas of low, moderate, or substantial community transmission, and 6 feet apart in areas of high community transmission if cohorting is not possible.
The CDC further recommends for schools that maintain less than 6 feet of distance between students in the classroom, to use cohorting and maintain at least 6 feet between cohorts. A distance of 6 feet remains recommended between adults and between adults and students when face coverings cannot be used (e.g., while eating), when in common areas, and during activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting band, or sports and exercise (it is recommended that these activities are held outdoors or in large, well-ventilated spaces).
California schools remain obligated to comply with any applicable guidance from state or local authorities, including the CDPH, Cal/OSHA, California Department of Social Services, or local public health department. Schools are not legally permitted to follow less restrictive or contradictory guidance from the CDC in lieu of following state or local requirements, laws, regulations, or orders.