The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says students can now sit three feet apart in classrooms rather than six feet.
In updated guidance released on Friday, the federal health agency said elementary school students can sit closer together as long as everyone wears masks – regardless of whether COVID-19 community transmission is low, moderate, substantial or high.
For middle and high school, pupils can also sit feet apart so long as mask use is universal, but only in areas where the spread of coronavirus is low, moderate, or substantial.
In neighborhoods where transmission is high, teenagers should sit at least six feet apart if they cannot cohort – which is when groups of students are kept together throughout the day to reduce spread.
However, adults are still required to be six feet apart from each other and from students.
The adjustment could lead to some schools foregoing remote learning entirely and help them return to in-person classes.
The CDC has updated it schools guidance and said students can sit three feet apart in classrooms rather than six feet. Pictured: CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky testifies before a Senate committee on Capitol Hill, March 18
The updated recommendations come after a new study found no difference in COVID-19 cases rates among students or staff in districts that had students sitting three feet apart compared to six feet apart (above)
The updated recommendations come after a new study found there was no difference in COVID-19 case rates in districts where pupils sat further apart in classrooms compared to those where children sat closer together.
For the study, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the team, led by Harvard University, looked at 251 Massachusetts school districts open for in-person learning in fall 2020.
In those districts, there are 37,336 students who attend classes and 99,390 teachers and other faculty members.
Between September 30 and January 7, 194 districts had students sitting a minimum of six feet apart and 49 had three feet of distance between desks.
Next, the team compared COVID-19 cases rates among the districts during the autumn semester.
Researchers found ‘no significant difference’ in coronavirus infection rates for either children or adults sitting six feet apart or three feet apart when universal mask wearing was in place.
The authors wrote that the findings mean ‘lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.’
Additionally, the team found that rates of COVID-19 infections were lower in schools were lower than in the surrounding communities.
This suggests that school buildings may be safer locations for both students and teachers to be than in cities or towns.
They noted that schools with desks only three feet apart would allow more students to be seated in each classroom.
It would also prevent children from having to stay home and do remote learning even if conditions for in-person learning are safe.
Experts say the updated recommendations could help some school forego remote learning and return to in-person teaching. Pictured: Students sitting six feet apart at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, California, March 2
The study also found that rates of COVID-19 infections were lower in schools were lower than in the surrounding communities
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky noted the study herself during her testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s oversight and investigations subcommittee on Wednesday.
‘As soon as our guidance came out, it became very clear that six feet was among the things that was keeping schools closed, and in that context science evolves,’ she said.
‘There has been one study that was published late last week that demonstrated in Massachusetts where there is generally 100 percent mask-wearing that three feet was actually safe.’
Walensky said the CDC was looking to update its guidance, but would not give a timeline on when that would occur.
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends anywhere between three and six feet in schools while the World Health Organization recommends one meter, or 3.3 feet.
But not everyone agrees with updating the guidance.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times, she is ‘very concerned’ about the guidelines potentially changing and said that school districts should instead find more space so that more students can attend sitting six feet apart.
‘The problem is, it is a debate about convenience, not a debate about safety,’ Weingarten said.
‘All of a sudden, because we can’t squeeze in every single kid if it’s six feet that miraculously there’s now studies that say three feet are fine. And what’s going to happen is, people are just not going to trust it.’
Weingarten said this will make it difficult for schools to inset new protocols such as how students go to the bathroom.
She added that she believes the CDC is currently under ‘a lot of outside pressure’ to revise the recommendations.