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Distancing requirements for schools eased by New York State

The changes would allow most students to sit closer together, as long as they continue to wear masks.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — New York State is easing reopening restrictions on schools to allow most students to sit closer together, as long as they continue to wear masks.

The change, which was released Friday, is expected to allow schools to bring more students back in to buildings and reduce their reliance on distance learning.

President Joe Biden has made it a priority to full reopen K-8 schools by the end of April.

But superintendents in New York have been frustrated by the state’s delay in acting on revised federal guidelines that say students wearing masks can safely sit just three feet apart in the classroom instead of six feet.

For middle and high school students, though, the distance could still be six feet, depending on how much spread is happening in the community, and whether the school can put students into smaller "cohorts."

For much of Western New York, that transmission rate is in the high category.

2 On Your Side talked with Niagara Falls schools superintendent Mark Laurrie about what the changes mean.

"It's curious that it came late on a Friday, but at least it came," he said. "We've been waiting for this guidance for 44 days. I'm glad it's here now. We have a plan."

Laurrie added: "It's doable. It's going to take a little bit of communication and planning. Our plan has been in motion in terms of room size, etcetera, and we're planning to bring our elementary school students back within a week to 10 days."

The guidance also says that everyone in the building needs to have masks on at all times, except when they're eating. It was issued as local school districts, including Williamsville and Orchard Park, have sued the state to allow those schools to fully reopen.

Western New York superintendents had been attempting to sort out the details for weeks with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and waiting for the state and county officials to provide the answers.

Some districts in Erie County had been trying to prepare for any revisions. The Depew Free Union School District last month released an online survey for parents, seeking input.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff Rabey told 2 On Your Side last month: "We have been working behind the scenes preparing for an imminent change. And what we said was, we have to wait and see what some of the parameters are before we survey our community, to identify what families would indeed come back five days a week."

A New York State Department of Health spokesperson in mid-March would only say they were reviewing the CDC guidelines as school districts continued to wait for instructions. 

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