- In a Friday update to its COVID-19 safety guidance for schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced physical distancing guidelines for students from 6 feet to 3 feet under certain conditions.
- Under the updated guidance, elementary students can be 3 feet apart in all instances of community transmission. However, middle- and high-schoolers should only be 3 feet apart if community transmission is low, moderate or substantial. In cases of high community transmission, middle and high school students should maintain social distancing of 6 feet if cohorting — or keeping the same students and staff together throughout the day — is not possible.
- The modified guidance also only applies to students in classrooms that practice universal mask wearing. The CDC still recommends social distancing of 6 feet between adults, as well as adults and students, in common areas, when masks can't be worn (such as while eating), during activities with increased inhalation like sports or band practice (which would preferably be held outside), and in community settings outside the classroom.
In its update, the CDC maintained that "it is critical for K
-12 schools to open and remain open for in-person instruction, as safely and as soon as possible." CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press release the updated recommendations provide an "evidence-based roadmap" to help do that.
The new guidance comes after multiple studies found 3 feet of distance may be enough to mitigate spread among students. And the guidance specific to elementary school students, who may remain 3 feet apart regardless of community spread level, comes after mounting evidence that younger students are less likely to spread COVID-19 than their older peers.
Considering many schools are constrained in their spaces, time and resources, maintaining a distance of 3 feet rather than 6 may also make the logistics of a return to in-person instruction simpler, with more students able to fit in a room.
"Many districts throughout the nation have successfully mitigated transmission using 3 feet physical distancing while maintaining their other protocols including disciplined mask wearing," said Robert Runcie, superintendent of Florida's Broward County Public Schools, in a statement to K-12 Dive. "If lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in schools without adversely affecting our students, it will enable more students to return to the classroom for a much needed traditional face-to-face education.”
“This is an important development," said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, in an email, adding "a reduction in distancing was always going to be necessary" to a full return to the classroom. "Millions of vulnerable children and families are struggling without in-person learning, and this announcement is a breakthrough in reopening schools for good.”