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3 feet of separation is enough in schools, CDC says, as long as masks are worn

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·5-min read

WASHINGTON — In a significant revision of its school reopening guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that students can be spaced 3 feet apart in classrooms.

“Physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken,” the CDC said in a statement.

The previous guidance, of 6 feet between desks, was widely seen as hampering school reopenings because many schools simply did not have the space or staff to make that accommodation and still have all students learning in person at the same time.

Mask use is critical to the new guidance. That guidance is clearest for elementary school students, who the CDC says can be seated in classrooms at a distance of 3 feet from each other “regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high.”

Middle and high school students can also sit 3 feet apart, though not in all cases. “Middle school students and high school students should be at least 6 feet apart in communities where transmission is high, if cohorting is not possible,” the CDC said. (Cohorting is the practice of keeping people in groups that do not commingle.)

Socially distanced and with protective partitions students work on an art project during class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, Calif. on March 2, 2021. (Haven Daley/AP)
Socially distanced and with protective partitions, students work on an art project at Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, Calif., on March 2. (Haven Daley/AP)

President Biden has made reopening schools a priority. The new coronavirus relief bill includes $122 billion for schools. He has also instructed states to vaccinate teachers by the end of March. Teachers had not been prioritized for vaccination in some states.

Proponents of reopening schools say the new guidelines are a significant, and auspicious, development. “This evidence-based change in guidelines will make it possible for more schools to open to all students,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who has written frequently on the issue. “They are a great step towards being able to bring all students back safely to in-person learning.”

Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and current George Washington University professor of health policy, had previously cautioned against reopening schools too quickly, especially in communities where the virus was still spreading rapidly. But she also commended the CDC’s revision.

“The goal needs to be to get children back in school, full time,” Wen told Yahoo News. “Unless 6-foot distancing is removed as a requirement, this won't be possible for many schools. That's why the focus needs to shift to what other things must be in place to replace the distancing,” such as mandatory testing and ventilation upgrades, as well as teacher vaccinations.

“If full, in-person schooling is essential, we need to figure out how to do this with other measures,” Wen said.

A girl attends school from a booth as students return to school as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions are lifted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 8, 2021. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
A girl in Philadelphia attends school from a booth on March 8. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

The Department of Health and Human Services announced earlier this week that it was providing $10 billion to help schools conduct more comprehensive testing. That should help school districts spot emerging outbreaks and implement quarantines without instituting more sweeping shutdowns.

To bolster its case, the CDC released three studies on Friday that show low transmission within public schools. Teachers' unions had asked for increased evidence on the purported safety of returning to in-person instruction. Some union leaders discounted earlier studies because they seemed to focus on rural districts.

The new research appears to be unambiguous in showing that schooling is safe as long as masks are worn and other mitigation measures followed. While that won’t ease all concerns among hesitant teachers and parents, it could bolster the case for returning to the classroom.

One of the studies published on Friday showed “much lower” transmission within 22 schools in Missouri than in the surrounding communities. The study was conducted in December, when the coronavirus was proliferating rapidly around the country. Mask mandates were in place at the time for schools in both St. Louis County and Springfield, where the study was conducted.

A second study looked at schooling in Florida, which has few pandemic restrictions in place. Students there returned to in-person instruction in August. Even so, that reopening has proved successful. “Fewer than 1% of registered students were identified as having school-related COVID-19” between August and December, the CDC said.

Juliana Orosi, center, checks in students Thomas, left, and Ethan Guillen on the first day of Broward County, Florida schools phased reopening for face-to-face eLearning at Fox Trail Elementary School, on Oct. 9, 2020, in Davie, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Juliana Orosi checks in students Thomas, left, and Ethan Guillen on the first day of phased school reopening in Davie, Fla., on Oct. 9. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

When the virus did enter schools, it tended to be in “districts without mask requirements.” Much like his political benefactor, Donald Trump, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis has generally downplayed and even maligned mask wearing as a public health measure. Many other governors have treated masks as a small but necessary concession to reopening schools and other segments of society.

The final study, which focused on the Salt Lake City area in December and January, found “no school-related outbreaks” in 20 elementary schools, with few cases to begin with. The Utah study noted that in some places, students were spaced less than 6 feet apart. “High student mask use” appeared to suffice.

Advocates saw Friday’s announcement as a major step toward reopening many schools this spring, with an eye to a nationwide reopening in the fall. The new guidance could have the greatest impact in districts where students are attending school in hybrid arrangements, going in on some days and staying home on others. More students could now presumably attend school on the same day, since they can sit closer together.

“We hope that many districts shift from the flawed hybrid model to five-day school this spring, and certainly all districts should be planning for that in the fall,” pro-reopening activist and educator Karen Vaites told Yahoo News. Vaites, who has a daughter in elementary school, points out that 3 feet of spacing “has essentially been the norm in Europe all year.”

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