In a major policy revision intended to encourage more schools to welcome children back to in-person instruction, federal health officials on Friday relaxed the six-foot distancing rule for elementary school students, saying they need only remain three feet apart in classrooms as long as everyone is wearing a mask.
The three-foot rule also now applies to students in middle schools and high schools, as long as community transmission is not high, officials said. When transmission is high, however, these students must be at least six feet apart, unless they are taught in cohorts, or small groups that are kept separate from others, and the cohorts are kept six feet apart.
The six-foot rule still applies in the community at large, officials emphasized, and for teachers and other adults who work in schools, who must maintain that distance from other adults and from students.
Most schools are already operating at least partially in person, and evidence suggests they are doing so relatively safely. Research shows in-school spread can be mitigated with simple safety measures such as masking, distancing, hand-washing and open windows.
“The big discussion is about three feet versus six feet, and there’s no question that going from six feet to three feet is going to add a small amount of additional risk,” said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. “But so far, from studies we’ve seen, the difference between three feet and six feet is not substantial.”
“My one caveat is that they should really make it clear that you can go to three feet only if you have done everything else correctly,” she added. “You’re requiring masking, you have checked your ventilation and added filtration if the ventilation’s not good — those types of things.”
Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious diseases specialist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, led a recent study on schools in Massachusetts that concluded three feet was a safe distance. “The reality is that the biggest barrier to getting kids back in school was this question of three versus six feet,” she said. “This breaks down a couple major barriers to getting kids back to school.”
In a statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that “transmission dynamics are different in older students — that is, they are more likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and spread it than younger children.”
In announcing the change, the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, cited findings from studies in several states. “We are following the science,” she said.
Teachers’ unions across the country have argued forcefully for six-feet of distancing, and have lobbied the C.D.C. and the Biden administration to maintain the previous guidance.
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On Friday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest educators’ union, released a statement saying she would “reserve judgment” on the new distancing guidelines pending further review of research on how the virus behaves in school settings. Becky Pringle, president of the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, raised similar concerns.
At the White House virus briefing on Friday, Dr. Walensky said she had spoken to the teachers unions. “They know that we need to follow the science and to make our guidance based on that science, and they’ve been very respectful of that,” she said.
Still, the statement from the C.D.C. lags behind some local health agencies across the country. Illinois and Massachusetts have already indicated that three feet of distance can be appropriate in schools. County-level health officials have also played an important role in guiding the decisions of school boards and superintendents, who have often been overwhelmed by conflicting public health guidelines.
The new guidance emphasizes that good air flow and ventilation in school buildings is a critical component of maintaining a safe environment, and continues to stress multiple layers of preventive behaviors including universal masking, hand washing, cleaning buildings and doing contact tracing, combined with isolation and quarantine.
While the majority of school buildings are currently open at least partially, the six-foot rule has prevented many from shifting to full-time, in-person schedules.