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CDC Eases Social Distancing Guidelines Seen as a Hurdle to School Reopening

By Evie Blad — March 19, 2021 7 min read
Students learn in-person and virtually in Courtney Choura's geometry class at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School on March 3, 2021, in the Mt. Lebanon suburb of Pittsburgh.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its recommendations for social distancing in K-12 schools Friday, saying 3 feet of space between students who are wearing masks is a sufficient safeguard for safety in most classroom situations.

Many educators and policymakers viewed the agency’s previous recommendation of 6 feet of space as a major hurdle to a full return to in-person school during the COVID-19 pandemic. And some feared the more-rigid guideline could affect schools’ ability to return to fuller in-person operations in the fall.

The major change in CDC recommendation comes a little more than a month after the agency released updated guidance, seeking to regain credibility and consistency in its messaging to schools under the newly formed Biden administration.

CDC leaders pointed to new research to justify the shift, though that research has some limitations.

“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement Friday. “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. These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”

Six feet of space is still necessary in middle schools and high schools located in communities with high transmission rates unless schools can group students in small cohorts that remain together throughout the school day to limit risk of transmission across larger groups of students, the CDC says in its updated recommendations.

Adults should also maintain 6 feet of space from each other and from students, the recommendations say. And 6 feet of space is still necessary in common areas, like lobbies; in situations where masks can’t be worn, such as meal times; and when “increased exhalation occurs,” like during sports, choir and band rehearsals, and exercise.

“These activities should be moved outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces whenever possible,” the new guidance says. The updated guidance also removed a recommendation for physical barriers in schools.

Federal health officials urged Friday schools to continue “layered mitigation” strategies. They pointed to recent federal efforts to expedite teacher vaccinations and to provide $10 billion in funding for COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools to suggest such prevention measures will be more common and accessible.

Political pressure to help schools open

Lawmakers had pressed federal health officials to change the guidelines as recently as Thursday, when Walensky testified before the Senate health and education committee.

“We can open schools and we have the ability to do that now,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Walensky. “In the meantime, the negative effects on our children continue to grow.”

There is not yet official federal data on how many schools are operating, but several private trackers suggest a majority of schools are offering some form of in-person learning, sometimes five days a week and sometimes through a hybrid of remote and in-person learning. Even where those options are offered, some parents have opted to keep their children in remote learning.

It’s unclear how much the revision will help more schools open. On the one hand, some schools had opted to remain in remote learning or in hybrid learning modes when they couldn’t find adequate space in their buildings for the previous recommendations. On the other hand, many schools have adhered more closely to state guidelines, some of which departed from the CDC on issues like distancing.

And some school districts have already committed to 6 feet of distancing in agreements with teachers’ unions and staff organizations.

“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,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

“Kids need to be in school, and the AFT has advocated consistently for safely reopening in-person learning since last April, but we are concerned this change has been driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science on aerosol exposure and transmission,” Weingarten added.

Weingarten said the research on distancing in schools has been “inconclusive at best and misleading at worst,” and that not enough studies have been conducted in “urban and under-resourced districts.” And National Education Association President Becky Pringle questioned whether schools without sufficient resources could successful do other mitigation strategies, like masking and ventilation, that may be more important if students sit closer together.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said internal polling of the council’s members showed that they uniformly believe the new guidance, coupled with the $122 billion in recent federal funding and increasing staff vaccination rates, will provide needed flexibility for school leaders putting together the complicated reopening puzzle.

“They also indicate that it would help them bring more students back into school face-to-face and mitigate the need for teachers to be teaching both remotely and face-to-face simultaneously, which many teachers find exhausting,” Casserly said.

For districts that have already been open and have made do with social distancing that at times fell below the earlier standard, the new guidance bolsters that idea that school can nevertheless be safe.

“We’ve been clear since the beginning that we will implement as many mitigation factors as possible, including wearing of masks, temperature checks, washing of hands, and social distancing to the greatest extent possible in classrooms and buses. However, we’ve also been clear that six-feet distancing has never been a reality for us,” said Russell Dyer, the director of the Cleveland City, Tenn., school district, which has offered in-person as well as remote learning since August.

The district has seen very few cases of within-school transmission, he said.

What the science says about social distancing

The CDC credited its policy change in part to new research it released along with the revised guidance on Friday: a group of new studies of transmission rates in different kinds of U.S. schools using a variety of different mitigation strategies. All of the studies showed relatively low rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools, even when there were high infection rates in their broader communities.

But most of the studies cited did not specifically analyze the difference in transmission rates between students spaced between 3 feet and 6 feet apart; rather, they noted that as a practical matter, most schools in the studies had been unable to meet the existing 6-foot spacing guidelines. Recent studies of schools in North Carolina and Wisconsin, Ohio and Missouri, all found most schools spaced students less than 6 feet apart.

Likewise, newly released studies of schools in Florida, Missouri, Utah, and New Jersey all found schools could maintain low transmission rates in communities with high community infection, but they did not clearly provide evidence that 3 feet was sufficient physical distancing. One New Jersey secondary boarding school studied maintained 6-foot distancing, and a Missouri pilot study included schools that used both at least 3 feet and at least6 feet of distancing, but did not parse differences in transmission rates for classes that spaced students differently.

A study of Massachusetts schools released online last week, which the CDC also cited, suggests schools can use smaller distances safely—if they strictly follow other pandemic mitigation measures, such as universal mask-wearing.

Researchers for that study, set to be published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, tracked well over 500,000 students and nearly 100,000 staff at 251 school districts in Massachusetts over a 16-week period. They found that among the schools where 100 percent of students and adults wore masks, the infection rates were no higher on campuses that used 3-foot distancing than in those using 6-foot distancing.

At a briefing with the White House COVID-19 response team Friday, reporters asked about new, more contagious variants of the virus that have been shown to be more contagious in children. Some research on transmission in schools was completed before those variants started spreading quickly in regions of the United States.

“While these variants are concerning, it is in fact the same disease and the masks and the distancing work just the same,” Walensky said.

The World Health Organization already recommends smaller physical distancing of 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, but there has been limited research on how much of a difference it makes in infection risk to separate students by 6 feet versus 3 feet.

Stephen Sawchuk, Assistant Managing Editor and Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.

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