• A new study found no significant differences in COVID-19 case rates between K–12 districts in Massachusetts that implemented 3 feet versus those that implemented 6 feet of physical distancing.
  • Experts say this new data is positive news for schools that struggle to reopen due to limited space for students.
  • In light of encouraging data such as this, the CDC has updated their recommendation that schools space seats or desks at least 3 feet apart (instead of 6) when feasible to prevent COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guidance around how much distance is needed between students in school settings has shifted.

new study led by physician researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that physical distancing policies with fewer feet between students may be adopted in school settings without negatively affecting the safety of students or staff, as long as masking mandates are in place.

The study was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The researchers’ analysis showed no significant differences in COVID-19 case rates between K–12 districts in Massachusetts that implemented 3 feet versus those that implemented 6 feet of physical distancing.

When asked about the study, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said in an interview March 14 that this new data suggests 3 feet may be a sufficient amount of distance to implement in schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has said desks should be placed at least 3 feet apart, ideally 6.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source updated their recommendations to also suggest it is safe for schools to space seats or desks at least 3 feet apart in classrooms where students and staff are wearing masks.

What the new research found

The researchers analyzed publicly available data from 251 eligible school districts during a 16-week period from the time schools opened in September through January.

They looked at the cases of COVID-19 among in-person students and school staffers and compared case rates in districts with 3 feet of distancing with districts that had 6 feet of distancing.

What they found was no significant difference in the number of cases among students or staff in districts with the two different policies.

“[This] is very encouraging,” said Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, MMSc, an infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System, who was one of the authors of the study.

“It means that we can — provided we have other mitigation measures in place, in particular, universal masking — bring students back to the classroom safely with 3 feet of distancing. The practical implication of that is that we can bring a lot more kids back to the classroom, which is great news for them,” she said.

This new data is positive news for schools that struggle to reopen due to limited space for students.

“This question of whether or not we need 6 feet has been a major barrier for bringing students back to the classroom,” Branch-Elliman told Healthline.

“Even though it’s a seemingly small question — do we need 3 feet or do we need 6 feet? — the implications of 3 versus 6 feet are huge in terms of bringing kids back to the classroom,” she said.

Masking, handwashing, using plastic barriers in certain areas, and having one-way hallways are some other guidelines the CDC recommends in school settings.

“It’s very important that as we learn more we adapt our policies and we rapidly integrate evidence into practice,” Branch-Elliman told Healthline.

She noted that early on in the pandemic it was prudent to take a very conservative stance on distancing in regard to children.

“But as we learn more, it’s critical that we adapt our policies based on emerging evidence, that we are flexible, and that we continue to adapt and adopt to what we are learning,” she said.

Branch-Elliman stressed that “masking is probably the most critical intervention for controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2.” She added that across the districts included in the study, there was a near-universal masking mandate.

Therefore, the study addresses the question of the effectiveness of 3 versus 6 feet of distancing among students and staff who are wearing masks.

Branch-Elliman also pointed out that the reduction in the amount of feet needed between students promotes a more normal classroom environment.

If implemented, it may help children adjust more quickly as they return to in-person learning.

“If we can adopt 3 feet and get kids back to the classroom full time, it’s a change but it’s moving towards a more normal situation for our children,” she said.

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