The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated K-12 school distancing guidelines to reflect that they can safely reopen while maintaining 3 feet of space between students as long as there is universal mask use. However, in communities where coronavirus transmission is high, the agency recommends middle school and high school students be at least 6 feet apart "if cohorting is not possible."
"This recommendation is because COVID-19 transmission dynamics are different in older students -- that is, they are more likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and spread it than younger children," the updated guidelines state.
The agency continues to recommend 6 feet of distance between adults in the building and between adults and students, in common areas such as lobbies and auditoriums, when masks can't be worn such as when eating, during activities such as singing, shouting, band, sports or exercises, and in community settings outside the classroom.
The update changes previous guidance that recommended 6 feet of space between students regardless of the level of community spread, which proved to be a challenge for many districts.
"CDC now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings," the update, published Friday, said.
The agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, had faced mounting pressure this week on Capitol Hill where lawmakers urged her to change the CDC guidance based on available evidence. Several cited the increasing mental health issues inflicted on the nation’s youth due to shuttered schools and virtual learning.
"Given the crucial services schools offer and the benefits of in-person learning, it is critical for K-12 schools to open and remain open for in-person instruction, as safely and as soon as possible," the update stated. "Schools should be the last settings to close because of COVID-19 and the first to reopen when they can do so safely."
Walensky had said this week that the agency was waiting for more available data to confirm that rates of coronavirus transmission remained low at 3 feet of space between masked individuals. The first such study was based on a school district in Massachusetts that saw nearly 100% participation in mask wearing among students and staff, and showed no change in the transmission rate of disease for 3 feet of distancing versus 6 feet.
In tandem with the updated guidance, the CDC published three additional studies addressing the spread of coronavirus in schools.
"CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges," 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. These updated recommendations provide the evidenced-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction."