Schools Weighing Whether to Seat Students Closer Together

Third grade studentsat Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

U.S. guidelines that say students should be kept 6 feet apart in schools are receiving new scrutiny from federal health experts, state governments and education officials working to return as many children as possible to the classroom.

Even as more teachers receive vaccinations, the distancing guidelines have remained a major hurdle for schools as they aim to open with limited space. But amid new evidence that it may be safe to seat students closer together, states including Illinois and Massachusetts are allowing 3 feet of distance, and others including Oregon are considering it.

Debate around the issue flared last week when a new study suggested that, if masks are worn, students can be seated as close as 3 feet apart with no increased risk to them or teachers. Published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, it looked at schools in Massachusetts, which has backed the 3-feet guideline for months.

Asked about it Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency is now exploring whether children can be seated closer together than was previously recommended. The 6-feet spacing guideline is “among the biggest challenges” schools have faced in reopening, she said.

The CDC included the larger spacing limit in its latest school guidelines, which were issued in February and concluded that schools can safely operate during the pandemic with masks, distancing and other precautions. It suggested 6 feet and said physical distancing “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

Other organizations have issued more relaxed guidelines, including the World Health Organization, which urges 1 meter in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to space desks “3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart.”

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, a national superintendents group, said he expects to see more states and schools move to the 3-feet rule in coming weeks. With the larger guideline, he said, most schools only have the space to bring half of their students in at a time. Moving to 3 feet could allow about 75% at a time, he said.

“There are districts that have been doing 3 feet for quite some time without experiencing any greater amount of infection,” he said.

In Illinois, health officials said last week that students can be seated 3 feet apart as long as their teachers are vaccinated. Before, state officials required the CDC’s larger requirement.

With the state’s blessing, the Barrington district near Chicago plans to reopen its middle schools Tuesday using the smaller spacing rule. Any student will be allowed to attend in-person at the two middle schools, although the district expects roughly 30% to continue with remote learning.

“I’m glad that our public health officials allowed us to move forward by looking at the data and research,” said superintendent Brian Harris.

Seven superintendents in central Oregon sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown last week asking the state to relax some of its social distancing rules — including the state’s 6-foot barrier — so that more students can return to class full time.


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