CDC Now Says 3 Feet Of Physical Distancing Is Safe For Schools

by Cassandra Stone
George Frey/Getty

The CDC has previously said schools should try to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially updated its guidance for schools in regard to physical distancing. On Friday, the agency announced it “now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least three feet in classroom settings.”

Previously, the guidance for the 2020-21 school year stated that three feet of distance was necessary in schools between children. The new guidelines still call for six feet of distance between adults and students in common areas like auditoriums and cafeterias. And the 6-foot distancing rule still applies to the general public in settings like grocery stores and other indoor areas.

The three-feet change is a pretty big deal for schools, because the six-feet guidance meant that schools across the country had to operate on a part-time or hybrid model in order to keep class sizes small enough to accommodate it. According to CNN, a three-foot rule would allow many more schools to open in person, full time.

The CDC reports that three feet between students, as long as everyone is wearing a mask and other prevention measures are in place, is a safe distance.

Another recent study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found there was no difference in Covid-19 rates between Massachusetts schools that mandated 3 feet of physical distance compared to 6 feet — as long as everyone wore masks.

During a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Thursday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the issue of updating guidelines is urgent.

“Indeed, because six feet has been such a challenge there, science has leaned in and there are now emerging studies on the question between three feet and six feet,” Walensky told Sen. Susan Collins during the hearing.

In the new guidance, the CDC recommends keeping students and teachers in distinct groups and maintaining 6 feet of distance between those groups when possible.

Since middle schools and high schools have higher community transmission, the CDC still advises students to stay 6 feet apart, if cohorting is not possible.

When it comes to classrooms, the CDC says changing the layout to face desks in the same direction and remove nonessential furniture can help maximize the distance between students. On school buses, the CDC recommends seating one child per row, skipping rows when possible, and opening windows to increase ventilation.

Adults in the school buildings — school staff and teachers — should still stick to six feet of distance with themselves and with children. “Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools,” the agency notes.

Hopefully, as most educators and school staff become vaccinated, and as long as everyone continues to wear masks, returning to school in-person will become more feasible for everyone.