With masks, 3 feet of distancing is now safe for schools, CDC says

CDC still recommends six feet of distance between adults and students in school buildings
By: | March 24, 2021

In an announcement that may be a game changer for the return to in-person learning, the CDC now says three feet of social distancing is sufficient in schools as long as students and staff continue to wear masks.

In updating its guidance for schools on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the latest research indicates that, with universal masking, three feet between students is safe for elementary schools, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high.

Three feet also works for middle and high schools, except where community transmission is high and cohorting is not possible. Under those conditions, administrators should continue to enforce sic feet of distance, the CDC said.

However, the agency still recommends six feet of distance between adults in the school building and between adults and students.

“Safe in-person instruction gives our kids access to critical social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to succeed,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said in a statement. “These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”

However, the CDC still recommends six feet of social distancing in certain situations:

  • In common areas, such as school lobbies and auditoriums.
  • When masks can’t be worn, such as when eating.
  • During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band practice, sports, or exercise. These activities should be moved outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces whenever possible.
  • In community settings outside of the classroom.

Administrators facing space constraints in their buildings have been hoping the CDC would find reduced social-distancing safe, particularly as most research has shown minimal transmission within schools.

“If that works, we can at least end the year bringing all of our children back four or five days a week,” says Jeff Pirozzolo, superintendent of the Auburn Enlarged City School District in New York. “It will help get kids conditioned for September when, hopefully, we’ll all be back to school everyday with minimal guidelines, though I’m sure we’ll still be wearing masks.”

The response, however, was more measured from some in the public school sector. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said her union was concerned the decision was driven more by the need for space than hard science.

“While we hope the CDC is right and these new studies convince the community that the most enduring safety standard of this pandemic—the 6-foot rule—can be jettisoned if we all wear masks, we will reserve judgement until we review them, especially as they apply in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Three-feet research

Recent research by the CDC and others have shown no difference in school transmission between three and six feet.

In one study, researchers examined COVID cases among students and staff in Massachusetts public schools with masking requirements but different physical distancing policies.

Student and staff case rates were similar in the 242 districts whether they required three feet or six feet of physical distancing.

“Increasing physical distancing requirements from 3 to 6 feet in school settings is not associated with a reduction in SARS-CoV-2 cases among students or staff, provided other mitigation measures, such as universal masking, are implemented. These findings may be used to update guidelines about SARS-CoV-2 mitigation measures in school settings,” the researchers wrote.

A series of CDC studies reached similar conclusions.

“Schools should be the last settings to close because of COVID-19 and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” the CDC said. “Working together, school leaders and community members can take actions to keep schools open for in-person learning by protecting students, teachers, and school staff where they live, work, learn, and play.”

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