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Pull your desks together

Updated CDC guidance gets more students back to class


A kindergarten class at Alice Smith Elementary School in Reno, Nev. Associated Press/Photo by Siobhan McAndrew/The Reno Gazette-Journal (file)

Pull your desks together

As of last Friday, the U.S. Centers Disease Control and Prevention only recommends 3 feet between desks in classrooms, rather than 6 feet. The change comes with caveats but removes a major hurdle for space-starved schools trying to bring more students into classrooms after many struggled with online learning.

Mask-wearing elementary school students can sit 3 feet from each other regardless of community COVID-19 transmission levels. Middle and high school students, who are more likely to catch and spread the virus, can sit 3 feet apart at all but the highest level of transmission, while teachers should stay 6 feet apart. The CDC recommends students maintain more distance outside the classroom, like in lobbies and auditoriums and while eating, singing, or playing sports.

The 6-foot rule had forced some schools to divide students into cohorts that traded off days of online and in-person learning. Others pushed students into overflow rooms where they logged in online while peers down the hall attended class in-person.

The update follows a recent spate of studies suggesting 3 feet is sufficient distance if students wear masks. One CDC study released last Friday found Utah public schools that reopened without 6 feet between students’ seats did not drive COVID-19 outbreaks from December 2020 through January 2021. The schools required masks and canceled team sports. In-school transmission was usually connected to poor mask use or students sitting near each other at lunch.

Officials at the state and federal level have prioritized getting students back into classrooms after months online. An estimated 12 million K-12 students still lack reliable home internet or devices, and others struggle to focus and learn online, contributing to widespread spikes in failing grades. Although more parents were concerned about kids contracting COVID-19 in school, a Jed Foundation survey last fall found 36 percent worried about their child’s emotional health if schools continued remote or hybrid teaching.

Some teachers oppose the change, fearing it heightens their risk of contracting the coronavirus. Cincinnati high school teacher Brandon Keller told his school board a 3-foot rule “will have a body count.” But others welcomed the change, and schools in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Indiana have successfully implemented it. In Danville, Ind., school board Vice President Tim McRoberts said the school has successfully minimized COVID-19 spread with a 3-foot rule.

“It’s gone very well for us. I won’t say there has been no transmission, but it’s been staggeringly low—like one time or something like that,” he said. “We’ve kept our doors open.”

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