CDC changes school guidance, allowing desks to
By Mike Stobbe
The Associated Press
March 19, 2021
NEW YORK (AP) ó Students can safely sit just three feet apart
in the classroom as long as they wear masks but should be kept
the usual six feet away from one another at sporting events,
assemblies, lunch, or chorus practice, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday in relaxing its
The revised recommendations represent a turn away from the
six-foot standard that has sharply limited how many students
some schools can accommodate. Some places have had to remove
desks, stagger schedules, and take other steps to keep children
Three feet "gives school districts greater flexibility to
have more students in for a prolonged period of time," said
Kevin Quinn, director of maintenance and facilities at Mundelein
High School in suburban Chicago.
In recent months, schools in some states have been
disregarding the CDC guidelines, using three feet as their
standard. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway
the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDCís community
interventions task force.
"We donít really have the evidence that six feet is required
in order to maintain low spread," she said. Also, younger
children are less likely to get seriously ill from the
coronavirus and donít seem to spread it as much as adults do,
and "that allows us that confidence that that three feet of
physical distance is safe."
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the revised
recommendations are a "roadmap to help schools reopen safely ó
and remain open ó for in-person instruction." She said in-person
schooling gives students not only "the education they need to
succeed" but access to crucial social and mental health
The new guidance:
- Removes recommendations for plastic shields or other
barriers between desks. "We donít have a lot of evidence of
their effectiveness" in preventing transmission, Massetti
- Advises at least three feet of space between desks in
elementary schools, even in towns and cities where community
spread is high, so long as students and teachers wear masks
and take other precautions.
- Says spacing can also be three feet in middle and high
schools, so long as there is not a high level of spread in
the community. If there is, the distance should be at least
The CDC said six feet should still be maintained in common
areas, such as school lobbies, and when masks canít be worn,
such as when eating.
Also, students should be kept six feet apart in situations
where there are a lot of people talking, cheering, or singing ó
all of which can expel droplets containing the coronavirus. That
includes chorus practice, assemblies, and sports events.
Teachers and other adults should continue to stay six feet
from one another and from students, the CDC said.
The CDCís six-foot advice for schools, issued last year, was
the same standard applied to workplaces and other settings. In
contrast, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested one
meter ó a little over three feet ó was sufficient in schools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says desks should be three
feet apart and "ideally" six feet.
The CDC guidance was problematic for many schools that
traditionally had 25, 30, or more children per classroom in
closely grouped desks. Some schools adopted complicated
schedules. For example, half a class might come to school on
some days, and the other half on other days.
Some schools stopped using lockers and staggered when
different grades could move between classes to avoid crowding in
the halls, where maintaining any distance at all can be
The Ridley school system in suburban Philadelphia took steps
like that to abide by the six-foot guideline. But neighboring
communities went with three feet, "and weíre not seeing the data
really reflect a different spread rate," said Lee Ann Wentzel,
the district superintendent.
Even before the CDC acted, the district had decided to shift
to three-foot distancing next month. Wentzel said the change in
CDC guidance will make it easier to explain and defend the
A recent study in Massachusetts looked at students and staff
members in schools that used the three-foot standard and those
that had the six-foot one. It found no significant difference in
Massetti said other research has also been influential,
including two studies the CDC released Friday. One out of Utah
found low coronavirus transmission rates among students who did
a good job wearing masks and whose desks were only three feet
apart. The other study, done in Missouri, pointed to a similar
Still, the change at the CDC met with skepticism in some
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of
Teachers, said the 1.6-million-member union is reviewing the
latest research, "but we are concerned this change has been
driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science
on aerosol exposure and transmission."
Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, a professor of pediatrics and global
urban public health at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said
three feet is "probably safe" if schools are doing everything
right ó if everyone is wearing masks correctly at all times and
washing their hands, and if ventilation is good. But he said
"I will not send my child to a school thatís distancing at
three feet," said Kleinman, who has a four-year-old daughter.
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