CDC says three feet of social distancing is safe in schools


Zach Gilbert

Students can now sit just three feet apart from one another in classrooms if they are masked, according to new CDC guidelines. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

According to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students can now sit just three feet apart from one another in classrooms as long as they are wearing masks – but traditional social distancing of six feet must be maintained at lunches, assemblies, sporting events, choir practices and the like.

Since schools reopened last fall, many have struggled to accommodate to the six-foot social distancing standard long suggested by the CDC. Many classrooms have had to remove desks entirely, and some districts have had to even stagger schedules to keep children apart throughout the day.

A few states – including Massachusetts, Illinois, Indiana and Oregon – have already backed this three-foot guideline in schools for months, with no serious struggles. It was their successes that influenced the CDC’s decision.

“We don’t really have the evidence that six feet is required in order to maintain low spread,” Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC’s community interventions task force, said.

Additionally, Massetti noted that younger children are “less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus” and “don’t seem to spread it as much as adults do,” so “that allows us that confidence that three feet of physical distance is safe.”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky added credence to Massetti’s assertions, stating that the revised recommendations can serve as a “roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.” Walensky strongly supported in-person schooling, noting that it is “the education [students] need to succeed” and emphasizing how it provides “access to critical social and mental health services.”

Overall, the new CDC guidelines:

  • Remove recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks (with Massetti adding that “we don’t have a lot of evidence of their effectiveness” in preventing transmission)
  • Advise at least three feet of space between desks in elementary schools – regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high – as long as students and teachers still wear masks and take other necessary safety precautions
  • Advise at least three feet of space between desks in middle and high schools, but only if community transmission is not high (if so, there should still be plans put in place for continued social distancing of six feet)

Six feet of social distancing should still be maintained in other areas throughout the school (such as entrances and lobbies) and especially when masks are not being worn, such as at lunch. In addition, when there is a space where a number of students are talking, cheering or singing (such as at an assembly, sports event or choir practice), six feet of social distancing should be observed here as well.

Furthermore, teachers and other adults should still stay six feet apart from one another and from students, despite the relaxed restrictions for students themselves, due to the COVID-19 transmission dynamics in older individuals.

The CDC also continues to urge all eligible Americans to receive their vaccines as soon as possible. President Biden has directed all states to prioritize K-12 teachers, school staff and childcare workers for COVID-19 vaccination, and he challenged states to give educators their first shots by the end of March. The CDC has assisted in this effort with its Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, with over 9,000 pharmacies participating nationwide to create vaccination appointments for teachers and staff throughout March. More information can be found here.