CDC changes COVID school guidance: Desks can be closer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an update to its coronavirus prevention guidelines Friday that reduces the minimum required physical distance in classrooms from six feet to three feet.

The recommendation comes with several limitations, and does not apply to adults or to other shared spaces on school grounds. Still, even with a host of caveats, the change could make it easier for more children to return to in-person learning, experts said.

In California, the guidance is expected to make it easier for schools to bring students back to campus on a full-time basis instead of having to rely on a hybrid model with smaller cohorts. As long as a six-foot distancing requirement was in place, it was impossible to fit a full class of students into a standard-sized California classroom at the same time.

The three-foot rule applies only in classrooms where mask use is universal. However, it can be safely implemented regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial or high, authorities said.

And it carries an asterisk: The six-foot rule stays in place for middle school and high school students whose communities have a high rate of transmission and where it’s not possible for students to remain in small cohorts with the same peers and staff in order to reduce the risk of viral spread. The reason, the CDC said, is that older students are more likely than younger children to be exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and spread it to others.

Outside of the classroom, the agency recommended that the six-foot rule be followed in these settings:

• Between adults, and between adults and students, in school buildings
• In common areas, such as lobbies and auditoriums
• In situations when masks can’t be worn, such as when eating
• During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band practice, sports or exercise (these activities should be moved outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces wherever possible, the agency noted)

The recommendation for six feet of physical distancing still holds in community settings outside the classroom, the CDC added.

The new advice closely follows a study of 537,336 students and 99,390 staff members in 251 Massachusetts school districts. After accounting for differences in infection rates in the community, researchers found that coronavirus case rates among both students and staff were essentially the same in schools that adopted a three-foot rule as in those that followed the six-foot rule. Those findings were published last week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety,” the study authors concluded.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the agency will continue to revise its guidance for schools to incorporate new scientific evidence as it emerges.

“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,” Walensky said in a statement. “These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease specialist at UC San Francisco, praised the CDC’s move.

“I think it’s a great thing,” she said, pointing out that the World Health Organization already recommends just one meter, or 3.28 feet, of physical distancing in general.

“Since the requirement of the six-foot distancing rule has been identified as a hindrance to school openings in some situations, this change by the CDC is a welcome one and will hopefully facilitate more school openings here in California,” Gandhi said.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agreed that the change was “a good idea,” adding that he didn’t think aerosol transmission was a major risk outside certain healthcare settings, or in situations where singing or vigorous exercise was taking place.

“This policy will have a major benefit in that it will allow in-person learning to resume more easily,” Adalja said. “In this country, for too long, we have harmed children by forbidding in person learning in our public schools despite the scientific evidence showing that this could be done safely.”

Requiring six feet of distance hasn’t stopped schools from reopening, but it has prevented some of them from offering a full-day schedule five days a week.

The complications caused by six-foot distancing requirements were at the heart of a lawsuit filed in north San Diego County. The plaintiffs sought a full schedule for students rather than a hybrid schedule, which would have allowed students on campus for no more than half of their instructional hours.

The judge overseeing that case issued a temporary restraining order this week that barred the state from enforcing its distancing guidelines. State health authorities had established a standard of four feet, but also allowed counties to require six feet of distancing, which is the policy in Los Angeles County.

For the time being, the state is not enforcing a distancing requirement in schools but said counties remain free to do so, officials said. That also means counties are empowered to eliminate distancing requirements altogether as long as the temporary restraining order remains in effect.

Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers and is an important ally for Biden and his education team, expressed concern Friday that the new guidelines were driven more by political considerations and logistics — a desire to fit more students into a classroom — than by settled science. But she toned down the more vehement objections she had made in previous days.

“While we hope the CDC is right, we will reserve judgement” until the union more fully reviews the research and the guidance, especially as it applies “in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges,” Weingarten said in a statement.

“We have asked the CDC to include urban and under-resourced districts in future studies, something it has not yet done,” she added.