CDC's new 3-foot rule in school is a 'welcome change,' experts say — but also presents new challenges

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on social distancing in K-12 schools this week, one day after President Biden announced plans to expand the availability of testing for teachers and students.

According to the CDC's new recommendations, elementary, middle and high school students can now be seated just 3 feet apart — instead of 6 — as long as mask wearing is in place and community transmission remains either "low, moderate, or substantial." Elementary students, an age group that's less likely to become infected with the virus, can also remain 3 feet apart when community transmission is high.

The guidance is stricter when it comes to middle and high school students, who research has shown are likely to spread the virus at the same rate as adults. This group must stick to the 6-foot rule when community transmission is high and if "cohorting is not possible." The CDC defines cohorting as "when groups of students are kept together with the same peers and staff throughout the school day to reduce the risk for spread throughout the school."

The CDC updated its guidelines on schools reopening Friday, suggesting that three feet — instead of six — may be enough to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)
The CDC updated its guidelines on schools reopening Friday, suggesting that 3 feet — instead of 6 — may be enough to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a statement Friday, the CDC said the new rules are based on three studies that "build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken." CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says the move comes in response to calls nationwide to reopen schools — for the health and well-being of both students and parents.

"Safe in-person instruction gives our kids access to critical social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to succeed," Walensky says. "These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction."

Infectious disease experts seem largely in favor of the guidance. "These are welcome guidelines from my perspective," says Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "We've seen from the beginning that there's a lot of science and data that supports the ability to conduct in-person learning during this pandemic and it's unfortunately been politicized. Now I think there's more and more scientific evidence to support this and, hopefully, this will push more schools to begin in-person learning because they've caused a lot of harm to children by not following the science from the beginning."

Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo Life medical contributor, agrees that 3 feet is the right move. "Fundamental to all of this is to decrease spread of the virus in schools when there is somebody who has it," says Kass. "That is how we need to think about this recommendation." Although she says that "3 feet is great" overall and "reflects the science," she pushes parents and educators to consider the new challenges that the 3-foot rule may present.

"What [the CDC] is saying is that — in younger kids who don't spread the virus easily — if there is mask wearing, then children can be 3 feet [apart] because it is highly unlikely that they will spread the virus in that environment," says Kass. "But what they're also saying is that you can now put twice as many kids in a classroom."

This change, in other words, doesn't come without risks. "If kids are going to be brought back with twice the density, parents need to understand that there is twice the risk that they have to quarantine — not necessarily get infected, because we know that it's unlikely that the infections will actually spread, but if there are twice as many kids in the classroom, that means there's likely twice the chance that somebody in that class could have COVID and so twice the chance that students will need to quarantine, and that's disruptive, right?" says Kass. "So I think parents need to know that this is the first in a set of rolling guidelines that we're looking forward to around what schools have to do to keep kids safe, but also get them back to learning full time."

While medical experts are applauding the change, some in the education world aren't as pleased. In a statement sent to Yahoo Life — and posted on its website — the National Education Association expressed concern that inner-city schools may face obstacles in adhering to the guidelines.

"At first glance, the change to 3-feet distance for students in classrooms will be particularly challenging for large urban school districts and those that have not yet had access to the resources necessary to fully implement the very COVID-19 mitigation measures that the CDC says are essential to safe in-person instruction, no matter how far apart students in classrooms are," says NEA president Becky Pringle. Many experts have pointed out that social distancing is a privilege — one that Black and Latino communities disproportionally don't have access to.

The NEA also notes, like Kass, that the 3-foot rule is simply part of a larger landscape of precautions that need to remain in place until the pandemic ceases. "While distancing is one important strategy, we must also continue to prioritize all mitigation strategies including vaccinations, wearing masks, handwashing, healthy school buildings and a system of testing, tracing and quarantining," says Pringle.

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