Pilot study cuts social distancing at Kent Co. schools in half

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County schools have reduced social distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet in pre-K through eighth grade classrooms.

The Kent County Health Department implemented the change in guidelines as part of a six-week pilot study that took effect at the end of February.

Officials with the health department say the trial run looks to decrease the need for quarantining and keep students in the classroom.

“We realized that it may be possible to only quarantine children that come into contact with someone that’s positive if they’re within 3 feet rather than within 6 feet,” Department Community Wellness Division Director Joann Hoganson said. “This would cut down substantially the number of children that would have to be quarantined and miss 10 days of school.”

Hoganson said this change stems from concerns that students were being required to “over quarantine.”

“We know that quarantining is a very effective tool … but we also know that quarantining children is incredibly disruptive to the family, the education of the child and to the mental health of the child,” Hoganson said.

Halfway through the six-week trial period, Hoganson believes they’re still the only county in the state to implement the change that strays from the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation.

“The CDC says that we have to quarantine anyone within 6 feet,” Hoganson said.

After looking at the data, she said the health department decided the pilot study was justified.

“There’s always a balance between the risk of having a greater spread of infection, compared to the benefit of keeping kids in school,” Hoganson said.

She also noted that ideally, students will maintain a 6-foot of distance whenever possible, with 3 feet being the minimum distance allowed.

County health experts point to the science backing their decision, saying evidence shows the risk for spread of infection in these classrooms is minimal. They noted this is not a strategy the county is prepared to implement at the high school level, where the virus has a higher rate of transmission.

A new study gaining national attention found that there’s no significant difference between practicing 3 feet or 6 feet social distancing in the school setting, so long as other mitigation strategies like mask wearing are in effect.

Three weeks into the six-week pilot study, Hoganson said they’ve not seen any significant increase in cases.

She said if there were to be a spike in school-related cases, the health department would instruct schools to revert to the 6-foot proximity guidance.

At the conclusion of the six-week trial period, the health department will review the data and feedback from parents and school officials in deciding whether to permanently implement the guidance.

School administrators told News 8 they feel comfortable following the guidance of county health officials.

“The impact of 3 (feet) versus 6 feet is going to certainly help with school operations, but also with students who may be unnecessarily quarantined as we know that students are better off when they’re in school,” Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston said.

Satisfied with the science regarding student safety, Polston said maintaining 3 feet of physical distance is more realistic for schools to enforce.

“We have to balance safety with also sensibility and what we can actually make viable in our schools, and 6 feet is not viable in schools with the return of students,” Polston said. “We’ve done the best we can, but 3 feet makes it much more viable.”

When asked about the pilot study, a spokesperson with Grand Rapids Public Schools sent News 8 a statement saying they appreciate the guidance from the county health department.

“We are using the latest guidance as we actively explore the potential expansion of our hybrid in-person instructional model for this year and next,” GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt said.

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