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Onondaga County schools can reduce social distance to 3 feet, allowing more kids in classrooms

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media File Photo
Schools in Onondaga County will be allowed to reduce distance between desks from six feet to three feet, but partitions will be required between desks

Officials in Onondaga County believe they are the first in the state to ease social distance rules in classrooms, which could clear the way for more in-person learning in central New York schools.

Onondaga County Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta said after going through reams of statistics from schools worldwide, as well as World Health Organization advice, she’s recommending that schools in the county can loosen the rule keeping desks at least six feet apart in classrooms. 

During a briefing Thursday, Gupta said the decision is driven by data, including comparing COVID-19 rates of children who learn at home with those who learn in a classroom.

“When we look at online, pure online versus the hybrid and in-person, no difference,” Gupta said. “That tells you the story."

Gupta said another consideration is the academic, social and emotional toll at-home learning is taking on students. 

“These kids are having a very difficult time,” she said. “And they are behind in their academic and emotional growth, and it’s really taking a toll. You have to find some balance.”

All other pandemic protocols would stay in place if schools choose this path. The new guidelines would also require plastic barriers between desks, according to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon.

“Recognizing the partition is something that will have a cost to it, the county will pay for partitions for any district that needs them,” McMahon said.

School officials say keeping distance at six feet in the classroom, limits how many kids can learn in-person, so this move could offer more in person learning options. The Syracuse City School District says it will continue to work on the logistics of offering more in-personal instruction based on this new guidance.  

“We will continue to work on the logistics of offering more in-person instructional days for our students based on this new guidance and the feedback from our families and our staff,” Syracuse City School District superintendent Jaime Alicea said in a statement. “Bringing students back in-person on more days will take some time as we need to look at the data collected from the surveys, develop a plan for transportation, develop academic schedules, listen to our families and staff and much more.”

Even with the new guidance, McMahon said it won’t happen overnight.

“It can’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “ One, we have to order partitions. That will take a while for them to get here. But also we want to do this right. And doing it right you need to work through the stakeholders and address every concern you can."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.