Are 3 feet of social distancing just as good as 6 feet of social distancing in schools?

3 feet of social distancing for children in classrooms
Photo via Daniel Moskowitz/Flickr (Public Domain)

As schools across the United States prepare to open their doors to more students than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many have been struggling to implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to keep desks at least six feet apart. But as of March 19, the CDC social distancing guidelines have officially changed from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Here’s what the CDC wrote: 

  • In elementary schools, students should be at least three feet apart.
  • In middle schools and high schools, students should be at least three feet apart in areas of low, moderate, or substantial community transmission. In areas of high community transmission, middle and high school students should be six feet apart if cohorting is not possible. 

The guidelines still maintain that six feet is the safest distance between students and teachers when masks are not worn or during activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise.

The change in the guidelines was inspired by a new study that stipulated that as long as everyone wears a mask, three feet of distance might be as effective as six feet. 

Conducted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the study analyzed 251 school districts, composed of 537,336 students and 99,390 staff participating in in-person learning for 16 weeks. The study found that student case rates were similar in both the school districts that used the three feet of distance guidance and in the districts using six feet of distance. 

The study came to this conclusion: “Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.”

However, the study isn’t foolproof. NPR pointed out that the study authors didn’t confirm how much distance was actually implemented at each school. So districts in the study that were allowed a minimum of three feet might have used larger distances when they implemented the practice in real life. 

With this new guidelines change, the CDC’s recommendations now align with the World Health Organization’s guidelines. WHO recommends students space out by one meter, or roughly 3.3 feet. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has been calling for a change to the guidelines like this for a while. 

“In many school settings, six feet between students is not feasible without drastically limiting the number of students,” the AAP wrote in its COVID-19 guidance for schools. “Some countries have been able to successfully reopen schools after first controlling community-wide spread of SARS-CoV-2 while using three feet of distance between students without increases in community spread.”

Before the pandemic, the average class size in the U.S. was about 24 students, according to the New York Times. That’s well above the recommended 10 people per gathering and impossible to maintain in the average classroom when allocating for six feet of distance between each desk. 

Sources: CDC, New York Times, Oxford Academic, NPR, WHO, American Academy of Pediatrics 

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