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CDC changes recommended distance between students to 3 ft. while masked

March 19, 2021

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Students only need to be 3 feet apart in their classrooms, not 6 feet, as long as they are wearing masks, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Today’s announcement builds on our ongoing efforts to support teachers, schools, staff and students  … to provide the guidance, tools and resources to get nation’s schools open as quickly and safely as possible,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, M.D., M.P.H.

The 3-foot distance applies to kindergarten through high school students while they are in classrooms and wearing masks. However, students in middle and high school should be kept 6 feet apart if community transmission is high and they are not in cohorts, according to the CDC. Research has found younger children transmit the virus at lower rates than adolescents and adults.

The CDC said 6 feet should be maintained between multiple adults and between adults and students. Six feet of distancing also should be used in common areas, when masks can’t be worn and during activities with increased exhalation like singing, band practice, sports or exercise. The CDC continues to recommend 6 feet of space in community settings outside the classroom.

The AAP has been reviewing the latest research and supports the CDC’s updated recommendations.

“As a nation, we should be prioritizing helping schools reopen safely so that children and adolescents can benefit from everything that schools provide,” AAP President Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, said in a statement. “I hope this new, detailed guidance from the CDC helps more school districts adopt strategies that enable all students to safely return to in-person school as soon as possible.”

The updated guidance follows several studies looking at the safety of keeping students 3 feet apart and other mitigation measures. A study of schools in Massachusetts, which mandates masks, found those schools keeping students 3 feet apart had infection rates similar to schools keeping students 6 feet apart.

The CDC also published three new studies today in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that found school safety measures to be effective in preventing virus transmission. In one, students’ desks were a median of 3 feet apart and most individuals were masked.

“K-12 schools that implement strong layered prevention strategies operate safely while protecting teachers, staff and students,” Dr. Walensky said.

In addition to physical distancing, other prevention measures include universal masking, hand washing, cleaning, diagnostic testing, quarantining those who are sick or exposed and contact tracing.

The American Rescue Plan, the federal COVID-19 relief package, includes $122 billion for schools to purchase personal protective equipment, add space, improve ventilation, hire more teachers and implement interventions to support students. Federal officials recently announced another $10 billion in funding for screening testing in schools to help identify people who are asymptomatic and potentially contagious.

President Joe Biden has directed states to prioritize teachers and other school staff for vaccination. Most students are not yet eligible for vaccination unless they are at least 16 and have an underlying medical condition or essential frontline job.

Vaccine approval for younger teens could come this fall, according to Anthony Fauci, M.D., President Biden’s chief medical adviser. He predicts younger children may be vaccinated in late 2021 or early 2022.

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