Most students only need to be spaced 3 feet apart in classrooms, according to new guidance for schools published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – just half of the 6 feet first recommended by the agency to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
The update could pave the way for more classes to return to in-person learning, as the Biden administration urges schools to reopen. For weeks, federal officials have acknowledged that some school districts would be unable to meet the guidelines laid out by the CDC in February despite an infusion of funds from the recently-passed American Rescue Plan.
“This is an urgent issue. I understand the mental health challenges. I understand the educational challenge, the food insecurity. This is urgent,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told a Senate hearing on Thursday of the need to reopen schools.
Combined with mask-wearing and other mitigation measures, the CDC’s revised guidelines allow for most students to be spaced just 3 feet apart in classrooms. However, in middle and high schools, students “should be 6 feet apart” in communities of “high” transmission when students cannot be grouped into “cohorts.” A cohort or “pod” is defined by the CDC as “a distinct group that stays together throughout the entire school day during in-person learning.”
Around 40% of counties remain at “high” transmission, according to CDC figures. The updated guidance describes community transmission as an “alert system” for the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. If levels rise, administrators are encouraged to impose “restrictions on sports and extracurricular activities to protect in-person learning.”
Adults, who tend to become sicker and spread the virus faster than children, are still urged to maintain 6 feet of distance from students and other teachers and staff in the school.
At least 6 feet of distancing is still advised for students of all ages whenever masks cannot be worn, such as when eating, and during any activities like singing, exercise, or band practice that involve “increased exhalation.” Those types of activities “should be moved outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces whenever possible,” the guidelines say.
“These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” Dr. Walensky said in a statement.
In releasing its new guidance, the CDC cited new research from schools that had safely reopened. In one study of elementary schools in Utah that were unable to space desks more than 3 feet apart “because of limited space,” researchers found little transmission “despite high community incidence.”
The agency’s updated guidance also incorporates new recommendations to implement screening testing, both “for schools that use less than six feet of physical distancing” and to support extracurricular activities, like sports.
Several school systems have implemented such testing campaigns, checking students and staff for COVID-19 daily with rapid turnaround tests. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it would pour billions of dollars into ramping up screening testing for more classrooms.
“We know there are schools that have tried to do it and have struggled to have the resources to do it. And so we want the resources out there, and we want to attract school reopenings,” Carole Johnson, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 testing czar, told reporters on Wednesday.
The changes come after weeks of mounting frustration over the Biden administration’s original guidelines, which critics said laid out unfounded hurdles for local school officials trying to chart a return to in-person learning.
A growing number of studies examining schools that reopened over the past year have turned up scarce COVID-19 transmission at distances shorter than 6 feet when other measures — like universal mask-wearing — were enforced. Research published earlier this month in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases comparing school districts in Massachusetts found similar rates of COVID-19 at both 3- and 6-feet requirements.
The CDC this week also released a survey suggesting school closures risked “negative mental, emotional, or physical health outcomes” and had disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic, and multiracial families.
“Keeping schools closed or even partially closed, based on what we know now is unwarranted, is harming children, and has become a human rights issue,” authors of research underlying the CDC’s earlier guidance wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today this month, arguing that the agency had misinterpreted their findings.
The CDC’s revisions bring its distancing recommendations for schools in line with others like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.
Some communities in the U.S.had already cited those guidelines to discard the CDC’s 6-feet recommendation and set their own social distancing rules between students’ desks, from Palm Beach County in Florida to schools across Massachusetts.
“The question, I think, for the administration and for the schools in the country is not whether they can be open, but how,” White House senior adviser Andy Slavitt said Wednesday.
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