In a major revision of guidelines aimed at encouraging more schools to welcome children back into face-to-face classes, federal health officials on Friday relaxed the 6-foot distancing rule for elementary school students, saying they were only three feet apart in classrooms stay while they do this Everyone wears a mask.
The three-foot rule now also applies to middle and high school students as long as community broadcast isn’t high, officials said. If the transmission is high, these students must be at least three feet apart, unless they are taught in cohorts or in small groups that are separate from others and the cohorts must be three feet apart.
The six-foot rule continues to apply across the community, officials stressed, and to teachers and other adults who work in schools and must keep this distance from other adults and students.
Most schools already operate at least partially personally, and there is evidence to suggest that they do so relatively safely. Research shows that simple security measures such as masking, distancing, washing hands and opening windows can reduce its prevalence in schools.
“The big discussion is about three feet versus six feet, and there’s no question that going from six feet to three feet brings a little extra risk,” said Linsey Marr, airborne virus expert at Virginia Tech . “But so far, from studies we’ve seen, the difference between three feet and six feet isn’t essential.”
“My only caveat is that they should really make it clear that you can only step up to three feet if you’ve done everything else right,” she added. “You need a mask, you’ve checked your ventilation, and you’ve added filtration when the ventilation isn’t good – that kind of thing.”
Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious disease specialist with VA Boston Healthcare System, recently conducted a study in Massachusetts schools that found three feet to be a safe distance. “The reality is that the biggest barrier to children’s return to school was that three feet versus six issue,” she said. “This removes a few major barriers to getting kids back to school.”
March 19, 2021, 8:12 p.m. ET
A statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: “The transmission dynamics are different among older students – that is, they are more likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and spread it than younger children.”
In announcing the change, the CDC director quoted Dr. Rochelle Walensky, results from studies in several states. “We follow science,” she said.
Teachers’ unions across the country have voted in favor of a two-meter distancing and advocated with the CDC and the Biden administration to maintain the previous guidelines.
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On Friday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest educators union, released a statement saying it would reserve judgment on the new distancing guidelines pending investigations into the behavior of the virus in school further reviewing attitudes. Becky Pringle, president of the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, expressed similar concerns.
At the virus briefing at the White House on Friday, Dr. Walensky, she spoke to the teachers’ unions. “They know that we must follow science and base our guidance on that science, and they have very much respected it,” she said.
Still, the CDC’s statement lags behind some local health officials across the country. Illinois and Massachusetts have previously stated that three feet may be appropriate in schools. County health officials have also played an important role in decision-making by school boards and superintendents, who have often been overwhelmed by conflicting public health guidelines.
The new guidance emphasizes that good air circulation and ventilation in school buildings is an important component in maintaining a safe environment and continues to emphasize several layers of preventive behavior, including universal masking, hand washing, cleaning of buildings and contact tracing combined with Isolation and quarantine.
While the majority of school buildings are currently at least partially open, the six-foot rule has prevented many from switching to full-time personal schedules.