The 6-Feet Social Distancing Rule Can Kill You – Think Cobras; Risks in Classroom Teaching Unavoidable, But Some May Be Accepted
WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 28, 2020) - Relying upon the generally accepted 6-foot social distancing rule to keep you safe from the deadly and very contagious coronavirus can easily get you killed, says professor John Banzhaf, who helped get smoking banned in most workplaces and public places by showing that even minute and invisible amounts of airborne tobacco smoke particles, far from the source, can still kill.
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The 6-Feet Social Distancing Rule May Not Keep You Safe From Coronavirus
Some people, apparently including many bureaucrats deciding whether universities should return to classroom instruction this fall, seem to be relying upon - or at least publicly claiming to base their decisions on - the concept that not going within 6 feet of another person will always provide sufficient protection from infection and the death, disability, or prolonged hospitalization too often caused by COVID-19.
But we now know that this is simply not true, and concerned professors should not continue to bet their lives on a concept which apparently was developed and popularized long before we had more complete information about the virus and how easily it is spread. In short, it makes little sense to play Russian COVID roulette in classrooms this fall, and pretend that there are no risks
Despite conventional wisdom that maintaining a separation of 6 feet is sufficient to prevent transmission of the coronavirus (e.g., from an infected student in a classroom to a professor in the front), a very careful study from an actual incident in a restaurant in China shows that one infected diner was able to and did - in a real life (not a simulated or theoretical) situation - transmit the virus to, and cause the deadly COVID-19 in, another diner some 4.5 meters [14.8 feet] away.
There are now also documented instances where one congregant infected others much more than 6 feet and several pews away in a church or other worship gathering.
Air Can Spread Virus Particles Far Beyond The Nominal 6-Foot Social Distancing Rule
As a followup to the restaurant incident, scientists at the Universities of Oregon and California (Davis) have shown that, in an enclosed area such as a restaurant or classroom, normal air circulation can spread virus particles suspended in the air far beyond the nominal 6-foot social distancing rule some bureaucrats purport to rely upon.
To help put this in context, says Banzhaf, consider this example. Experts claim that a king cobra has an attack range which can be up to 2 meters (just over 6 feet), but suggest that they rarely strike unless provoked. Based upon this assurance from experts, would any professors willingly walk through a field of king cobras, provided they would never be closer than 7 feet from any one snake?
Even if a valiant (or foolhardy) teacher might be brave (or foolish) enough to do it once, virtually no one would even think of doing it once or twice a day for months at a time, even for hazardous pay. Now, suggests Banzhaf, suppose there were to be a documented case where (by analogy to the actual restaurant situation above) one king cobra managed to strike out from some 14.8 feet away,
What now would any reasonable person do?:
[A] continue to walk near the potentially deadly snakes, provided only that every cobra was always at least 7 feet away, as the experts originally suggested?
[B] continue to walk near the potentially deadly snakes, but now insist upon at least a 15-foot separation from every cobra, based upon this one actual instance?
[C] be even more cautious, because even 15 feet cannot be guaranteed to always provide enough protection in the future?
Germs Can Travel Further In A Classroom Situation
Moreover, scientists at MIT have shown that germs in a sneeze can travel some 200 feet - much further than the distance which can be maintained between students and their professors in many classroom situations.
Given all this information, faculty who are especially vulnerable to death. disability, or prolonged hospitalization from COVID-19 - because they are over 65 OR have a variety of medical conditions including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, etc. - logically should not be willing to risk their lives on the assumption that every student will always be able to effectively suppress or cover up a sudden cough or sneeze in the classroom, especially during the entire fall entire semester .
Still another study shows that a single passenger with COVID-19 on an airplane can infect more than a dozen other passengers several rows in front as well as behind him, despite the state-of-the-art HVAC systems on modern airplanes which are certainly far superior to the ventilation systems in most classrooms.
The analogy to students seated in a classroom should be clear. That same study also suggests that, since the particles can be expelled upwards, even a plexiglass shield in front of the professor - which some have actually suggested - may not guarantee complete protection from infection.
The Risks Are Seemingly Unavoidable
Thus, although the risks are seemingly unavoidable, even if a 6-foot social distancing rule can somehow be maintained without a single exception, that doesn't necessarily mean that no classroom instruction should begin in the fall.
Since the risk to mostly young and largely healthy college students is very small, they may be willing to assume it for the benefits they see from in-classroom instruction, and to avoid the kind of on-line instruction they just experienced - which some derogatorily call studying at "Zoom U."
If these students are willing to assume the risk, then colleges can, if they wish, ask the students to sign a release, similar to the releases they are accustomed to signing when they go skiing or rent an e-scooter.
In all such cases - i.e., skiing, studying in a classroom, riding a scooter, etc. - the students acknowledge that there are unavoidable risks which they are willing to assume in exchange for being able to engage in the activity.
Thus, in return for being permitted to participate, the students "assume the risk" (as lawyers put it), and agree not to hold the entity (ski slope operator, university, scooter rental company) legally liable, except in the very rare event of gross negligence.
Attending School From Home
Students who are at exceptionally high risk because of advanced age or pre-existing medical problems can be offered the opportunity to participate from home via the Internet.
Faculty are different because, as employees, they in many cases have legal rights to additional protection provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act, local anti-discrimination statutes which prohibit actions which have the effect or consequence of discriminating against employees with disabilities, and the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
So the minority of professors who are at especially high risk because of age OR medical conditions can be protected by permitting them to teach from home or from another room on campus (where they will not be exposed to infection from students, and will have access to a blackboard, better audio and video equipment, an assistant to operate the IT equipment, and more), or by providing sabbaticals, furloughs, etc., suggests Banzhaf.
Indeed, he notes that the CDC's May 21 guidelines for higher education provide that institutions of higher education should "offer options for faculty and staff at higher risk for severe illness (including older adults and people of all ages with certain underlying medical conditions) that limit their exposure risk (e.g., telework and modified job responsibilities)