School Report Card: Duke University under 'stay in place' order amid campus outbreak, CDC says 3 feet between students is OK

·8 min read

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Duke University officials ordered a weeklong stay-in-place order due to rising COVID-19 numbers on campus

Students at Duke University were ordered by school officials to stay in place this week, starting March 13, as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.

"This action is necessary to contain the rapidly escalating number of COVID cases among Duke undergraduates, which is principally driven by students attending recruitment parties for selective living groups," reads a message sent to all undergraduate students on March 13. "Over the past week, more than 180 students are in isolation for a positive COVID-19 test, and an additional 200 students are in quarantine as a result of contact tracing. This is by far the largest one-week number of positive tests and quarantines since the start of the pandemic."

The order shifted all classes and labs to remote instruction, and kept students in their residence hall rooms or apartments "at all times" with the exception of "essential activities related to food, healthy or safety." Students living off-campus are not permitted on campus, except for grab-and-go food and COVID-19 testing.

A March 14 update from Michael Schoenfeld, chief communications officer for the school, pointed the blame at fraternities. “This stay-in-place order is the direct result of individual behavior in violation of Duke’s requirements for in-person activity," the update said. "These new cases are almost all linked to unsanctioned fraternity recruitment events that took place off-campus. Those who are found responsible for organizing and hosting these events will be held accountable through the student conduct process."

Cases of COVID-19 are dropping in North Carolina, but they're far from zero — the state reported 1,999 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. Currently, the state is vaccinating some but not all residents in tier 4, which includes adults at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure and those at an increased risk of severe illness. All of tier 4 will be eligible for a vaccine on April 7. Tier 5 opens up vaccinations to all residents.

Duke's men's basketball team announced on March 11 that it was dropping out of the ACC tournament, and subsequently the NCAA March Madness tournament, due to a positive COVID-19 test from a team member.

Students aren't happy about the lockdown. Some started a petition to sue the Durham Interfraternity Council "for reckless endangerment of students, elderly faculty, staff, workers, and the Durham Community at large."

Plenty have shared their thoughts in the comments. "Frats need to be held accountable for acting selfishly and screwing over the entire school," one wrote. A Duke University senior said that the fraternities have "no idea the scale of loss they've caused with their irresponsible actions," noting that friends "are losing their theses."

As for how the lockdown is going, a Duke University spokesperson told Yahoo Life, "So far, so good."

The CDC says 3 feet distancing is sufficient in most schools. Not everyone agrees.

The CDC updated its official guidance for schools on Friday, reducing the required amount of social distancing between students to at least 3 feet, down from the previous 6 feet recommendation. Under the new guidance, schools will be able to put more students in classrooms.

The CDC also recommends that schools mandate the use of masks. Teachers and other staff should also stay at least 6 feet away from students, the guidelines say.

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. Today marks the reopening of Jefferson County Public Schools for in-person learning with new COVID-19 procedures in place. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A teacher walks among masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School in Louisville on March 17 in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The new changes come on the heels of a new study of Massachusetts public schools that suggests 3 feet distancing is sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

The study, which was published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, analyzed data from 251 school districts in the state during a 16-week period. The researchers found that student and staff case rates were similar in the 242 school districts with distancing protocols of at least 3 feet versus those that distanced students and staff at least 6 feet when combined with other safety precautions like wearing masks.

"Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety," the researchers concluded.

Doctors are divided about the results. "I’m really excited about the science behind this," Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "It looks like 3 feet might be safe, as long as everyone wears masks and follows proper protocols."

Dr. John Schreiber, interim chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that the data is "very promising," but says it "would be nice to have more studies on this." But Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life that it's "risky" for schools to now assume that 3 feet distancing is safe. "It removes a layer of safety," he says. "When a kid takes off their mask or a teacher isn't wearing theirs perfectly, there is a bigger risk when there's less spacing between them."

Schools shift back to remote learning after outbreaks

A Michigan high school reverted back to remote learning after nearly 200 of its students had to quarantine due to in-school exposures. Officials at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., announced on March 12 that the school would hold classes via remote learning this week, with an anticipated return to in-person learning on March 22. "We appreciate the families who reported five new cases so far today and anticipate additional positive tests throughout the weekend and early next week based on exposure dates and the information we have available to us," the announcement says.

The school later announced that there were 19 positive COVID-19 cases that were identified in the outbreak.

Pennsylvania's Nazareth Area Middle School also shifted to remote learning this week after a rise in COVID-19 cases. School officials announced that the change was made under recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. School is scheduled to reopen for in-person learning on Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, we're still in the midst of a pandemic," Schreiber says. "There is still a lot of community spread, and it's not over yet."

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that these shifts between in-person and remote learning "may continue during the spring months." But, he adds, "hopefully enough people will be vaccinated that we will see a substantial decline over the summer, allowing for in-person learning in the fall."

Atlanta middle school comes up with clever strategies to keep band practice going

An Atlanta middle school has implemented several creative COVID-19 safety protocols to allow students to continue to play in the school band.

Nina Pryor, band director at Howard Middle School, tells Yahoo Life that, while the school started off the year fully virtual, some students went back to in-person learning in February. Now students in band class must sit 6 feet apart, "except for trombone players — they're 9 feet apart," Pryor says. Each student sits in a labeled chair, which is thoroughly cleaned between classes.

Students play wind instruments through slits in their masks that allows their mouthpieces to go through, while the bells have covers that were awarded through a grant from the Save the Music Foundation, funded by Sony Music Entertainment. (Bell covers diffuse the air coming out of the bell, causing fewer aerosolized plumes to be generated.)

Fisher calls the moves "brilliant," adding, "somebody got really creative."

"Everything we can try to do to normal our kids' lives, like getting back to band practice, is important," she says. "It's so good for students."

Pryor says that students and their families have been "very cooperative" with the changes and that the children have been happy to perform together again. "Being able to come back together and get some sense of normalcy during this crazy time is really enjoyable for them," she says. "It still takes some creativity to get everybody to play together, but we're making the best of it."

Pryor says that running a band during a pandemic "changed the way we do band [class]." Now, she says, her team uses technology more than they did before, and it's for the better. "I just feel like now is our time to shine," she says.

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