CDC Changes School Social-Distancing Requirements from Six to Three Feet

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Students sit at distanced desks during an in-person hybrid learning day at the Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Va., March 2, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday announced new guidance for physical-distancing requirements between children in schools, allowing for just three feet of space between students instead of the six feet it had previously recommended.

The new guidance, which will allow more students to be inside classrooms, does not apply to teachers and other adult school staff who still must remain six feet apart. Masks should remain mandatory as well, according to the CDC.

Students also must continue to maintain six feet of distance in common areas, such as auditoriums, and when masks are off, the guidance says.

Many schools had shifted to hybrid or part-time schedules to reduce class sizes in order to accommodate the six-foot rule. The new guidance will free up space for more students to return to in-person learning.

The change comes as studies in Massachusetts and Wisconsin have suggested that children and teachers can safely return to the classroom with the shorter distancing in place, as long as other mitigation strategies, such as universal mask-wearing and good ventilation, are implemented.

“Provided we have universal masking mandates, I think it’s very reasonable to move to a three-foot recommendation,” Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, a specialist in infectious diseases at the VA Boston Healthcare System, told the New York Times.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, had acknowledged on Sunday that the CDC is “very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like three feet are okay under certain circumstances.”

Lindsey Marr, an expert on viral transmission and professor at Virginia Tech, told the Times that it is almost as if the six-foot measurement “was pulled out of thin air,” as researchers have found that coronavirus spreads primarily through tiny droplets called aerosols, which can travel over longer distances.

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