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CDC Looks At Whether 3 Feet — Instead Of 6 — Is Safe For Schools' Social Distancing

Giani Clarke, 18, a senior at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., takes a test in her AP statistics class earlier this month. The desks are doubled as a way to provide more social distancing.
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MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Giani Clarke, 18, a senior at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., takes a test in her AP statistics class earlier this month. The desks are doubled as a way to provide more social distancing.

As President Biden pushes to get students back in schools, there's one crucial question: How much social distance is necessary in the classroom?

The answer (to that question) has huge consequences for how many students can safely fit into classrooms. Public schools in particular are finding it difficult to accommodate a full return if 6 feet of social distancing is required — a key factor behind many schools offering hybrid schedules that bring students back to the classroom just a few days a week.

The CDC's current guidance for schools recommends seating or desks be "at least 6 feet apart when feasible."

But a new study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests that 3 feet may be as safe as 6 feet, so long as everyone is masked. The authors compared infection rates at Massachusetts schools that required at least 3 feet of distancing with those that required at least 6 feet, and found no significant difference in the coronavirus case rates among students or staff in the two cohorts.

The authors pointed out an important caveat to the findings: It's possible that districts that allowed a minimum of 3 feet were able to attain larger distances than that in reality – and in that case, the study would be capturing official policy but not its real-world implementation.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, addressed the Massachusetts study at the White House COVID-19 briefing on Monday, and noted that schools have struggled with the 6-foot guidance.

"We are looking at these data carefully," Walensky said. "The question actually prompted more studies to be done, so we know more are forthcoming. We're taking all of those data carefully and revisiting our guidances in that context."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious diseases official and Biden's chief adviser on COVID-19, was asked about the findings on Sunday.

"When the data shows that there is an ability to be 3 feet, [the CDC] will act accordingly," Fauci told CNN's Jake Tapper. "The CDC is very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like 3 feet are okay under certain circumstances." The CDC will update its guidance if the data merits it, Fauci said.

The World Health Organization's school guidance suggests that in areas with community transmission of COVID-19, at least 1 meter (3.28 feet) of distance should be maintained between individuals. That's much shorter than the CDC's recommended 6 feet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that desks be placed at least 3 feet apart, and 6 feet if possible. But it notes that in many schools, 6 feet is not possible without severely limiting the number of students. As a consequence, the APA says, "Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative."

Biden's new education secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR recently that one way to achieve social distancing requirements is to use parts of the school building differently. He pointed to a Connecticut school that was using its gymnasium as a classroom for part of the day, and he said warm weather allows for the possibility of outdoor classrooms.

While such conversions take resources, Cardona said, "I think it can be done, and it can be done safely."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.