CDC ‘revisiting guidances’ after study shows just 3 feet of social distancing is safe for schools

BOSTON, Mass. — In many areas of the United States, the debate over reopening schools boils down to what safety measures officials believe students should be observing. While social distancing guidelines typically call for six feet of space between people of all ages, a new study finds kids are just as safe with much less space between them. Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) say if children are wearing face masks, there’s no reason kids should be any more than three feet apart in schools.

Now, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they’re examining the report and “revisiting” their recommendations for possible changes.

The study examined the different reopening strategies taking place across public school districts in the state of Massachusetts. The results reveal there is no significant difference in the number of new COVID infections for schools enforcing six feet of social distancing verses those dropping it to three feet.

Study authors add schools which maintain mask mandates but lower the demands on social distancing are not endangering the safety of either the students or school staff. In some cases, strict COVID guidelines only make it harder for educators to find enough space to conduct in-person learning.

“Prior studies have not directly compared the impact of different physical distancing policies among students attending in-person school,” explains lead author Dr. Polly van den Berg, in a media release. “This research, which found no substantial difference in the number of cases among either students or staff in school districts that implemented a distancing policy of three versus six feet between students, is important because many school buildings have physical infrastructure that cannot accommodate six feet of distancing and bring all (or most) students back into the classroom.”

The findings could lead the CDC to amend their current recommendation that follows the standard six-foot rule for social distancing.

“We are looking at these data carefully. The question actually prompted more studies to be done, so we know more are forthcoming,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House press briefing. “We’re taking all of those data carefully and revisiting our guidances in that context.”

There’s more than one way to stop COVID-19

Van den Berg and the team analyzed data from 251 Massachusetts school districts from September 2020 through January 2021. The study includes information on the reopening plans affecting over 537,000 public school students and nearly 100,000 staff members. Study authors compared infection control plans, new infections reported, and community infection rates across the state during this time.

There findings conclude that the difference in COVID cases is minimal when comparing schools which want to separate children by six feet and those which ease restrictions. Researchers note that social distancing is just one helpful tool in curbing the spread of coronavirus — not the only one.

“These data can be used to inform and update how infection control plans are implemented in school settings,” says corresponding author Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious disease specialist at BIDMC and a clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System. “It is important to remember that distancing was just one of a number of interventions adopted in the districts included in our analysis. Across the districts included in our study, there was a near-universal masking mandate, thus our study addresses the question of the effectiveness of three versus six feet of distancing among students and staff who are wearing masks.”

Schools are not the COVID hotspots

The BIDMC team’s report is reinforcing the argument that schools (and children) are not driving the spread of COVID-19 anyway. In fact, school infection rates were generally lower than the surrounding communities in the study. Previous studies discovered that closing schools in areas like New York is not helping to lower their COVID death rates.

The team points out that infection rates in each school district show a closer connection to their community’s COVID levels. This is especially true for infection rates among the school staff.

“Early in the pandemic, infection control plans for schools and other settings were developed based on the best available evidence at the time — which, early on, was limited,” concludes Branch-Elliman, who is also an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “We hope that our findings can be used to update current recommendations about distancing policy, and ultimately, to help return more students to the classroom.”

The study appears in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.