RICHMOND — Virginia students could be as close as 3 feet apart when they return to schools.
State officials have quietly updated guidance on reopening schools this fall, including new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that say students can be as close as 3 feet apart if they wear face masks and are not showing symptoms of the virus.
That recommendation, which is 3 feet closer than the 6 feet suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could mean more students inside classrooms this fall.
Still, the state would prefer for people to stay farther apart.
"In school settings, schools are encouraged to aim for 6 feet of physical distance to the greatest extent possible; however, if 6 feet of distance is not feasible (inclusive of buildings and school buses), schools should implement a combination of face coverings and a minimum of 3 feet distance between everyone present," the updated guidance says.
In a letter accompanying the new guidance, which was sent to superintendents and school leaders across Virginia, Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver said officials have updated the guidelines to "reflect 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."
Gov. Ralph Northam and Lane released the initial guidance in early June, allowing for a phased reopening of school buildings, which closed for the rest of the academic year in mid-March. The state and its schools are in the third reopening phase, which allows for in-person instruction to be offered to all students.
Reopening schools has become an increasingly divisive topic, with local school boards tasked with deciding how and when to bring students back. Some parents have argued for a full reopening, a position President Donald Trump has also taken, while others have said reopening could lead to the further spread of a virus that has killed nearly 1,900 people in the state, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
"As Virginia enters Phase 3 [of its reopening plan] and we prepare for the start of the school year, it remains clear that schools, working together with local health departments, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases and protecting vulnerable students and staff," Lane and Oliver said in the Monday letter.
They added: "We simultaneously recognize that school closures have a dramatic impact on student learning, the ability of parents to return to work, and the social emotional wellbeing of teachers, students, and parents alike. We share your urgent desire to get students back to the classroom as soon and as safely as possible."
While the state’s initial June release of the long-awaited reopening guidance included a news conference and multiple news releases, Monday’s update carried no such fanfare.
Northam ended his regular news briefings late last month. Asked if the Virginia Department of Education would be sending a news release, a spokesman responded with a link to the updated document.
That document says students and staff should wear face masks when they can’t keep 6 feet of distance.
The guidance also includes new language that school systems should tell the state Education Department if they plan to "deviate from the recommended health mitigation strategies" outlined in the guidance. Districts are still required to submit plans to the state on its plans to slow the spread of the virus.
"Such plans shall include policies and procedures for the use of face coverings; health screenings of staff and students; physical distancing measures; enhanced hygiene practices for staff and students; isolation of symptomatic cases; and cleaning and disinfecting procedures and other topics as outlined in the Phased Guidance for Virginia Schools," Oliver’s order requiring the submission of the K-12 plans says.
School boards in Central Virginia have yet to finalize reopening plans, but are considering options that would allow students to continue learning virtually if their families are not comfortable sending them back to school.