Dallas County

Concern in Maskless Texas as CDC Says Students Can Be Closer in the Classroom

In-person instruction is the best case scenario for students, Rena Honea, president of Dallas' Alliance/AFT union, said. But, it has to be safe.
In-person instruction is the best case scenario for students, Rena Honea, president of Dallas' Alliance/AFT union, said. But, it has to be safe. Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash
Less than two weeks after Texas ditched its mask mandate and dropped most coronavirus restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated social-distancing guidelines for school children, prompting concern among education groups.

On Friday, the CDC said children could move from a distance of 6 feet to 3 feet during in-person instruction. The new guidance also removes the recommendation for physical barriers.

The change comes with the release of three new studies that suggest the new distance should be safe as long as everyone is wearing a mask and other protective measures are taken. The CDC says masks should still be used in schools. If masks aren’t on, the CDC recommends the original guidance, 6 feet apart. The original distance is also still recommended in common areas and while eating, when a mask must be taken off.

After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nixed the mask mandate, school districts had to choose on their own whether to continue requiring masks on campus.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN the issue is urgent because of the challenges posed by keeping kids 6 feet apart.

The agency also recommends teachers and other staff maintain 6 feet of distance between them and kids when possible. They also say teachers and staff should limit interactions during meetings and breaks, and still recommends 6 feet of distance between adults.

"Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools," according to the CDC.

The new guidance also doesn’t apply to middle schools and high schools where virus transmission could be higher.

Rena Honea, president of Dallas' Alliance/AFT union, told the Observer she didn’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing the struggles of teaching school kids during a pandemic.

Every teacher is doing the job of two people when they have to balance in-person and virtual learning, as well as maintain safety guidelines for the virus, Honea said. “It’s been incredibly exhausting, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally,” Honea said. She said it’s a difficult situation for teachers to be in, “but every one of them are giving it their 110-120 percent.”

The main goal of the change is to get more kids in school so they can have in-person instruction, which Honea said “is always the best scenario.”

However, she thinks the change comes after a lot of pressure from parents, as well as businesses who want employees back at work. “There’s a lot of pressure coming from a lot of areas,” she said.

She said many schools in Texas have already been using the 3 feet distancing. But she doesn’t think dropping to 3 feet with a lifted mask mandate will make parents feel safe about sending their kids to school.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming from a lot of areas." – Rena Honea, Dallas' Alliance/AFT union president

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Moving forward, Honea said there needs to be an increased focus on COVID-19 testing for kids and employees, the air quality inside campuses, as well as vaccinations. According to the CDC, focusing on these preventative measures will give school populations layers of protection from the virus,

Until recently, teachers weren't a high priority for the vaccine. Earlier this month, though, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a directive that states immediately make teachers, school staff and childcare workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. However, there are still plenty of eligible people waiting to get their shot.

The Texas State Teachers Association is also concerned about the change especially in districts that have removed their masking requirements for students and employees.

“We agree with the CDC that students and school staff must be masked, and we call for Gov. Abbott to reinstate his mask mandate, at least for all public schools,” the association said in a press release.

The association is also calling on the state to use all of the $12.4 billion in federal funds approved for public education in Texas under the new stimulus law and the $5.5 billion still unspent from the previous stimulus plan to increase school budgets, not to help balance the next state budget.

According to a poll conducted by the association, 59% of voters said public schools need more funding on top of what they received two years ago, and that federal stimulus funding is the best way to provide that.

Honea said, “Educators want kids back in school as long as it’s done safely.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn