CDC Updates School Desk Guidance: 3 Feet Apart, With Masks

The agency says it reexamined its rule on 6 feet of social distancing that had been clearly burdensome for schools to implement.

Students in teacher Christopher Duggan’s science class clean their work areas at the end of class Thursday at Windsor Locks High School in Windsor Locks, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

(CN) — Saying it’s safe, with universal masking, for school desks to be just three feet apart, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Friday, cutting in half the recommended distance between desks. 

In a move intended to ease difficulties of schools wanting to reopen while complying with its guidelines, the CDC “now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings.” 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have advised keeping 6 feet away from others to avoid undue exposure to their respiratory particles. That came from studies of multiple viruses, including the flu, MERS and other coronaviruses, to see how far droplets and aerosols can travel. 

Those studies were conducted with and without masks, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said earlier this week. 

“As soon as we put out our guidance, among the biggest challenges that we were aware of was the fact that schools were having a hard time with the 6-foot guidance,” Wallensky said. “And that, of course, prompted more studies to say, ‘Is 6 feet necessary in the context of mask-wearing?’”

A study published March 10 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that rates of Covid-19 in students and staff were similar whether observing a policy of 6- or 3-foot physical distance. 

The research included more than 530,000 students and 99,000 staff, across 251 districts, during a 16-week period. 

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

Ahead of the CDC guidance change, Wallensky had said the CDC was reviewing study data and would decide whether to update its guidelines, which previously supported physical distancing of 6 feet, “to the greatest extent possible.” 

And on Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on “The Today Show” that the drop to 3 feet “likely will happen” when schools reopen. 

In its updates on Friday, the CDC also “clarified that ventilation is a component of strategies to clean and maintain healthy facilities.” 

CDC ventilation guidance now recommends opening windows when safe and feasible, decreasing occupancy where it’s not feasible, ensuring ventilation systems work, and improving air filtration. 

“Ventilation considerations are also important on school buses,” the CDC notes at the end of the list. 

Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, discussed the 3- and 6-foot rules, and what else it will take for schools to reopen safely, during a recent call with reporters. 

Jha put universal mak wearing at the top of the list, followed by improved ventilation. 

Ramping up testing is also a crucial step, Jha said, especially since “kids are not getting vaccinated any time soon.” 

“Last but not least,” vaccinating teachers and staff is “a very, very reasonable thing to do,” Jha said, and would “add a very substantial level of confidence and safety.”

As far as whether 3 or 6 feet is safe: “This is one of those things that’s going to continue to plague schools,” Jha said. “How much separation should there be among students?” 

To Jha, however, the results of the new study in Clinical Infectious Diseases were “not at all surprising.” 

“One of the things that’s going to hamper return to schools is the 6-feet rule, and I really think that the evidence right now does not back up the need for that,” Jha said. “Teachers and students can be kept safe without that rule.”

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