Coronavirus: Do students have to be 6 feet apart in school? Guidance may be changing

While the debate continues over how schools can safely reopen in the fall, a guideline that says students should be kept 6 feet apart to reduce the chance of spreading the COVID-19 virus is being challenged.

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The discussion over distancing in schools, a significant hurdle authorities must overcome for in-school learning, took a turn last week after a study published in the journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested that if other mitigation measures were enforced, then students could be seated 3 feet apart and be at no more risk of contracting the virus.

The study compared the number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff at Massachusetts school districts that required at least 6 feet of separation with school districts that required only 3 feet of distance. No statistically significant differences in infection rates were found among the staff and students.

Researchers studied staff members and students at some 242 school districts in Massachusetts from Sept. 24 to Jan. 27. The schools had varying levels of in-person learning.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that the agency is reexamining its recommendation that students be seated at least 6 feet apart, saying the guideline is “among the biggest challenges” schools have faced in reopening.

“We are looking at these data carefully,” Walensky said at the White House COVID-19 briefing Monday. “The question actually prompted more studies to be done, so we know more are forthcoming. We’re taking all of those data carefully and revisiting our guidances in that context.”

The CDC updated its school reopening guidance in February, keeping the recommendation that students and staff stay 6 feet apart.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools should place desks at least 3 feet apart, but 6 feet apart would be better.

The World Health Organization’s school guidance says at least 1 meter, or a little over 3 feet, of distance should be maintained between staff and students in schools.

The new guidance could ease the problem schools have of accommodating all their students in a building that was not designed for such distances between people.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a national superintendents group, told The Associated Press that he expects to see more states and school districts move to the 3-feet rule for seating students. With the larger guideline, he said, most schools only have the space to bring half of their students in at a time. Moving to 3 feet could allow about 75% at a time, he said.

“There are districts that have been doing 3 feet for quite some time without experiencing any greater amount of infection,” Domenech said.

The space issue could mean that schools that have in-person learning will have to stagger days students are physically at the building, instead implementing a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

In Massachusetts, teachers and some schools oppose a plan designed by the state to bring younger students back five days a week beginning in April. The state wants schools to seat the returning students 3 feet apart.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a statewide union, argues that seating students closer will increase the risk for everyone in the classroom, the AP reports. The plan is also in conflict with agreed-to contracts with teachers adopting the 6-feet rule as a requirement.

“They can’t just throw 6 feet out the window. They can’t throw away what has been agreed upon,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the union told the AP. “If they can’t make it work, then they’re going to have to come to a new agreement.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the CDC is “well aware that data are accumulating” that would support reducing the distance guidelines in schools.

“What the CDC wants to do is accumulate data, and when data shows that there is ability to be 3 feet, they will act accordingly,” Fauci said.

“It’s going to be soon ... It won’t be very long, I promise you,” he said.

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