Schools Weighing Whether to Seat Students Closer Together

BOSTON (AP) -
A student in his classroom at the Samuel Smith Elementary School in Burlington, New Jersey. (Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters)

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.

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 (WHO), which urges 1 meter in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to space desks “3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart.”

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.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a statewide union, argues that seating students closer will increase the risk for everyone in the classroom. It also poses a problem for districts that have agreed to contracts with teachers adopting the 6-feet rule as a requirement.

“They can’t just throw 6 feet out the window. They can’t throw away what has been agreed upon,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the union. “If they can’t make it work, then they’re going to have to come to a new agreement.”

In Boston’s public schools, desks will be spaced at least 3 feet apart but teachers and staff will be asked to keep 6 feet from students and other staff when feasible, said Xavier Andrews, the district’s spokesperson. Schools will also use larger rooms and outdoor spaces to keep students at a safe distance, he said.