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CDC: When Students Are Masked, 3 Feet Apart Is Safe in Classrooms

A Black, female teacher in a classroom of students; everyone is wearing a face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study has shown that social distancing lengths of three feet in schools are just as effective as six feet when everyone in a classroom is wearing a mask.
  • In light of the recent findings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised its strict six-feet guidelines. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have already stated that three feet of social distancing is safe for classroom settings.
  • The change could accelerate school reopening nationwide and boost the Biden Administration’s goal of getting children back to school full time by the end of April.

Researchers in Massachusetts recently set out to determine if schools could safely reduce social distancing length. The study's findings indicated that having three feet of social distance in the classroom is just as effective as having six feet as long as everyone wears a face mask.

The retrospective, state-wide study, which was published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, provides a ray of hope that schools could soon safely reopen to students full-time.

The Study

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 251 reopened Massachusetts school districts that had COVID-19 infection control plans, including both three-feet and six-feet social distancing requirements for students and staff. The data was collected from September 2020 to January 2021.

Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc

The six-feet requirement has been one of the biggest barriers for reopening because a school’s square footage can’t accommodate all children when they are spaced six feet apart. The critical question to address is if this is necessary.

— Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc

The results found no significant difference in infection rates between the schools operating at three feet and the schools operating at six feet.

“This is great news for reopening schools,” Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc, an infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System, tells Verywell. “The six-feet requirement has been one of the biggest barriers for reopening because a school’s square footage can’t accommodate all children when they are spaced six feet apart. The critical question to address is if this is necessary.”

Will This Change COVID-19 School Guidance? 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had previously stated that social distancing guidelines in schools should be six feet. On March 19, the CDC said revised its school reopening guidelines to reflect the new evidence in favor of three-feet of social distancing. The updated guidance could help get students back in the classroom faster.

“But our study has real-world data and it should be used to inform the policy conversation,” Branch-Elliman says.

Different Recommendations

In the past year, organizations have debated how many feet constitute safe social distancing in schools. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) both suggest that three feet of social distancing is a safe distance to mitigate exposure in the classroom, but the CDC has been firm about its requirement of six feet until now.

According to the Washington Post, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “as soon as our guidance came out, it became very clear that six feet was among the things that was keeping schools closed.”

In an interview with CNN's State of the Union, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the new evidence could also support the Biden Administration’s goal of getting children back in the classroom five days a week by the end of April, as reducing the requirement to three feet will allow more students to return to in-person learning.

How States Are Responding

The state of Massachusetts already adopted the three-foot social distancing guidelines as part of its COVID-19 infection control plan. Elsewhere in the United States, the Northern Virginia school system has also been an early adopter of the three-foot recommendation. The change has allowed the state to accelerate its in-person reopening plans to four-days-a-week by April 20.

According to Burbio’s K-12 School Opening tracker, 64% of elementary and middle school students are benefiting from some form of in-person learning and 21 states have more than 80% of their schools open.

School Will Likely Never Be the Same

While schools are working on reopening and getting back to a feeling of normalcy, experts have pointed out that education has been forever changed.

According to The Hechinger Report (a non-profit that covers education), the consensus among school district leaders is that “public education will never be the same” after the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic’s effect on school-aged children has been troublesome, the changes in education have not been all bad. Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, told the Hechinger Report that “there are so many discoveries, realizations, and so much innovation. This wasn’t just a snapshot in time. It’s going to require us to be in a continual cycle of figuring out new and better ways to do things.”

What This Means For You

The CDC, WHO, and APA have each decided that three feet of social distancing is sufficient in schools as long as everyone in the classroom is wearing a face mask.

Schools in some states, including Massachusetts and Virginia, have already adopted the three-foot guidelines. Contact your local school district to ask about its COVID-19 plans.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. van den Berg P, Schechter-Perkins EM, Jack RS, et al. Effectiveness of three versus six feet of physical distancing for controlling spread of COVID-19 among primary and secondary students and staff: A retrospective, state-wide cohort study. Clinical Infectious Diseases. Published online March 10, 2021:ciab230.

  2. The Washington Post. CDC set to revisit advice on spacing between students amid new evidence. Updated March 17, 2021.

  3. CNN, State of the Union. Fauci: Study suggests 3 feet may be good enough in schools [video transcript].

  4. The Washington Post. Loudoun schools moving to four days a week of in-person learning next month. Updated on March 17, 2021.

  5. The Hechinger Report. Schooling has changed forever. Here’s what will stay when things go back to normal. Updated March 16, 2021.