The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday revised its guidance on social distancing in schools, saying most students can now sit 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet so long as they are wearing masks.
The recommendation is for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial, the CDC said.
In communities where transmission is high, the CDC recommends that middle school and high school students remain at least 6 feet apart if schools aren’t able to keep students and teachers in assigned groups. In elementary schools, where younger children have been shown to be at less risk of transmitting the virus than teens, kids can stay safe at 3 feet apart with masks, the agency said.
The CDC said it continues to recommend at least 6 feet of distance between adults in schools and between adults and students. It also still recommends 6 feet of social distancing in common areas, when eating, during in-door activities, such as band practice and sports, and in settings outside of the classroom.
“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in a statement. “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.”
The updated guidance from federal health officials comes after a study published last week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested public schools could safely reopen as long as kids were 3 feet apart and other mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, were enforced.
Some schools had complained that maintaining a 6 feet rule was not feasible. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both OK’d 3 feet social distancing.
Walensky told lawmakers on Wednesday that the CDC was working on updated guidance for schools. The White House’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Thursday that shortened social guidelines would “likely” happen. He was also asked Sunday about the study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.
“What the CDC wants to do is they want to accumulate data and when the data shows that there is an ability to be 3 feet they will act accordingly,” Fauci told CNN. “I can assure you within a reasonable amount of time, quite reasonable, they will be giving guidelines according to the data they have.”
President Joe Biden has made safely reopening the nation’s schools for in-person learning a focus of his first 100 days in office. Some parents have been forced to stay at home to watch their children instead of going to work.
New data from the CDC published Thursday suggests that virtual learning “might present more risks than in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health and some health-supporting behaviors.”
The CDC surveyed 1,290 parents or legal guardians of school-age children up to age 12 between October and November. Overall, almost half — 46.6% — of all parents reported increased levels of stress, 16.5% said they were using more drugs or alcohol and 17.7% said they had trouble sleeping, among other deleterious effects from the pandemic. But those with kids in full-time or part-time virtual learning programs reported higher levels of suffering across the board than parents with kids in school, researchers found.
The administration has said it is pouring $10 billion from the recently passed stimulus package into Covid-19 testing for schools in an effort to hasten the return of in-person learning across the country. The money will be used in part to provide diagnostic tests to symptomatic teachers, staff and students, as well as those who don’t have symptoms but might have been exposed to an infectious person.
The CDC came under scrutiny last month after Walensky said teachers do not need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 before schools can safely reopen. The White House walked back Walensky’s comments, and Biden later urged states to states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff.
“Let me be clear, we can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated,” Biden said March 2 at the White House. “But time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about it.”
– CNBC’s Will Feuer contributed to this report.