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What is Three Feet?

August 13, 2021 pm31 1:44 pm

One yard? Thirty-six inches? Something like that.

But in the language of the pandemic, three feet is the current social distance that we are trying to maintain in lots of places. I am writing this because those places include schools.

The New York City Department of Education says that schools should try to create social distancing at three feet. But Wednesday they added, if a school cannot create social distancing at three feet, add more kids to the room, but call it three foot social distancing anyhow.

Karin Goldmark signed the memo, which asks principals to play “Let’s Pretend” with public safety at stake.

If they cannot meet three feet, the DoE says, go ahead and exceed three foot social distancing by up to 25%, but continue to call it three foot social distancing.

Layers of Protection

There are many things we can do, as individuals, as institutions, as society, to protect against the spread of disease. Here we are focused on COVID-19. using multiple approaches has been called “layering” – the more layers, none of which on their own provide complete protection, the more protection. Vaccination is one very important layer. Masking, done correctly, is another. Better masks provide a better layer. So is washing hands – although we now know this thing is airborne. Limiting the number of contacts is another; in schools this is being called “cohorting” or “podding” – and it might work in lower grades, but is awkward at best in middle school, and only possible in some high schools. Social Distancing is another layer.

Medieval Authority

Let me say up front, the existence of 50 fiefdoms, with autonomous duchies and city-states beneath them, is medieval. We have a government whose political organization belongs to an era before epidemiology. Authority in our schools rests with the Department of Education, which is run by a Chancellor, appointed by a Mayor, weakly overseen by a CEC, regulated by New York State Education Department which is not empowered to actually make decisions. All of this is under a Governor, who had emergency powers, but now does not, and has a week and a half left anyhow. The federal government cannot dictate local school policy, but it can deny funding to states for not following federal demands, and it provides a lot of funding.


And the CDC can provide guidance. Once upon a time the CDC was an organization of doctors and scientists who did their jobs. Today the amount of political interference in the CDC is obvious. It played out, on live tv, as the CDC dueled and ducked and duked it out with Donald Trump, sometimes standing firm, often bending, and occasionally yielding completely. It plays out, for us today, in the political decision – schools should be open – driving medical and public safety recommendations.

But once the CDC sets guidelines, makes recommendations, they don’t become law. It is still up to the other layers of government to duel and joust over who makes decisions.

CDC’s current guidance

is to use lots of “layers” in school. They recommend three feet for social distancing (with caveats and details), but add, if that’s not possible, do your best, and make sure to have lots of other layers, like podding.

New York State’s guidance

The Health Department, under demonic Howard Zucker, who should be immediately removed by Kathy Hochul, told schools that they would provide reopening guidance – right up to the week before the guidance was due, when they claimed that they would not provide guidance because the governor’s emergency powers were gone. But those powers had expired a month before, and they were still promising guidance after. It’s not the first time Zucker has lied, and this lie did not cost lives as his lies in 2020 may have, but it is still annoying.

Stepping into that void the New York State Education Department issued a document. It is a guide, recommendations. And it follows the CDC guidance pretty closely, with some added stuff.

What the New York City Department of Education is doing

The City DoE told principals to meet 3 feet social distancing if they could. They left open the possibility that 3 feet might not be possible, and left it at that.

NYCDoE identified schools that could not meet 3 feet, and ignored them, except for the worst few. They are talking about 50 schools (out of 1800). The real number of schools with distancing problems is probably over 300.

Shifting the blame onto principals

The NYCDoE has set very loose guidelines. They are far from specific. And they give principals autonomy to run their schools.

Actually, that last part, about autonomy, is a lie. The DoE micromanages much of what principals do. But when there is something tricky, or immoral, or illegal, the DoE gives principals “discretion.” “Discretion” is in quotes because it is really blame-shifting onto principals, it is plausible deniability, it is ducking responsibility.

The DoE knows that beyond the 50 schools it is examining, there are at least a few hundred that will not meet three foot social distancing. But that, they say, is up to the principals to plan for.

The NYCDoE Planning and Development Spreadsheets

Late spring 2020 Planning and Development sent out spreadsheets giving principals the maximum number of students they should put in each room. I wrote about it here. They overcalculated how many kids would fit at 6 feet social distancing. And then they gave a range, where the already overcalculated number was now the minimum. In the classroom where I usually teach, that number as THEY calculated it was 11. But they told my principal 11 – 15.

What is a maximum?

When there is a bridge, and it says “Clearance 9′ 6″” that means a vehicle taller than that should not attempt to go through. Why don’t they say “Clearance 9′ 6″ – 10′ 2” “? The answer is obvious. A maximum is a maximum. An elevator may give maximum weight 1450 lbs. They don’t write 1450 – 1790, again, for obvious reasons.

When Planning and Development calculated 11 as the maximum, and then wrote 11 – 15, they asked principals to use the higher number, which exceeded the maximum. Their boss, who signed her name, was playing roulette with our safety, and hoping that she has adequately shifted responsibility/blame onto principals, in case something went wrong.

New spreadsheets

In March of this year Planning and Development sent out new spreadsheets, since social distance in lower grades was being dropped to three feet. Those spreadsheets contained only one number. That number was calculated by taking the area of the room in square feet (perhaps over-reported – that’s certainly in the case in my school and in any room with fixed furniture), multiplied by 0.04, rounded, and subtracted 2 for the adult.

I was surprised that the obvious dishonesty was not present.

Newest spreadsheets

In the face of a few hundred schools that cannot meet three foot social distancing, Planning and Development issued new spreadsheets. They reported the old maximum as the lower number in a range, and increased room capacity, on a spreadsheet, by pushing a button, by 25%.

What about layering?

I don’t see where the City actually discusses it, but maybe it is there. The CDC does mention it. And NYSED refers to that part of the CDC guidance. If social distancing cannot be maintained, claims the politicized CDC, then a layering approach will help. But some of the key layers are not available in New York City schools. Little kids cannot be vaccinated. Older kids cannot be mandated to be vaccinated. Kids in some D75 schools cannot wear masks. “Pods” don’t work in most high schools and many middle schools.

The Goldmark memo

was written to justify this approach. Goldmark tells principals to use three foot social distancing. And if they cannot, she continues, go ahead and exceed three foot social distancing by up to 25%, but continue to call it three foot social distancing.

I do not know why such a person, with no education experience, is allowed to be in a position to do this.

Here’s her memo:

Dear Principals,

As you know, physical distancing is one of many measures the NYC DOE is taking to ensure the health and safety of our school communities. Our multi-layered approach puts health and safety front and center and follows all the latest guidance from local, state, and federal bodies.

In response to requests, attached please find updated room-level capacity reports for your school. This includes an estimated physical distancing capacity range for each full-size and half-size room allocated to your school that maximizes the ability to program classrooms safely while still maintaining three feet of distance, in line with latest CDC guidance. We know that most of you have already programmed your instructional space and do not need to make adjustments. For the small number that may benefit from additional capacity, these reports should help guide the final touches of your planning.

These estimates apply to all elementary, middle, and high schools and reflect the total capacity of each room including students and staff.     

The low end of the capacity range aligns with the capacities you received in March, and includes buffer zones in each room, such as along the walls. The high end of the range still safely allows for three feet of distance between individuals. Please keep in mind that in order to maintain three feet of distancing using the high end of the range, the following may be necessary: 

·        Desks may need to be placed along walls 

·        Desks may need to be staggered 

·        If the unique configuration of a given classroom is such that the high end of the range cannot be accommodated with three feet of space between each seat, please plan accordingly and do not go up to that capacity   

Additionally, please note that contractual maximums must be honored, even inlarge rooms where the number of students that can be served may exceed them. In these cases, please adhere to the lower of the two numbers, which is the contractual maximum.

These reports are based on 2020-2021 room allocations.  If you believe your room allocations will change during the 2021-2022 school year, please reach out to for an updated room report.

A cross-functional team has been working all summer with the small number of schools that may face challenges due to physical distancing guidelines. We will continue to provide intensive support and to mobilize resources for each of these schools in the lead up to September 13th.  

Executive Superintendents, Superintendents, and Directors of Operations will continue to work closely with you to ensure that workable plans are in place and that you have the support you need to ensure a safe, smooth opening this September.  As always, if you have questions or need assistance in addressing a space challenge, please contact your BCO Director of Operations and/or Superintendent for support. If you are the principal of a District 75 school and have questions, please reach out to Patricia Klebanov at for support.

You are also welcome to join one of the weekly support meetings organized jointly by the Office of Space Management, the Division of Operations, and the Division of School Planning and Development.  More information is forthcoming. We appreciate your continued dedication to your school communities and our continued partnership in this work. We look forward to a safe, joyful, and enriching return to school buildings in September.


Karin Goldmark

Deputy Chancellor, School Planning and Development

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Arthur Goldstein permalink
    August 14, 2021 am31 8:57 am 8:57 am

    So kind of her to say contractual maximums must be followed. I’m always impressed by the generosity of these folks.

    • August 14, 2021 am31 9:01 am 9:01 am

      Don’t break the contract while people are looking. Good policy.

      Seriously, a high-level, high-pay bureaucrat with no special knowledge of planning and no special knowledge of schools and not an educator. This is patronage at its most blatant. Tell me there’s a school in the city that would not gladly trade her in for a teacher and two paras.

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