Photo credit: Adam Schultz

The CDC says 3 feet distancing in classrooms with masked students is sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in low to moderate risk communities. 

In Friday morning’s briefing, Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, was joined by director of the CDC Dr. Rochelle Walensky to give a status update on vaccine administration, as well as announce the update to physical distancing requirements in schools. 

The CDC is prioritizing schools in the reopening process, and notes that safe in-person instruction with proper masking and distancing is critical in providing children vital educational needs.

3 feet distancing in lower risk communities 

The requirements for distancing vary depending on whether a school is K-12, a middle school, or a high school. It is also dependent on if the school is located in a community where risk of contracting COVID is low or not. 

In K-12 schools, specifically elementary schools, the CDC is now recommending that students say 6 feet apart when everyone is wearing a mask, regardless if the risk of COVID-19 in that community is low. If COVID-19 risk is considered to be “low, moderate, substantial, or high in middle and high schools” the CDC is allowing distancing of 3 feet in classrooms, said Dr. Walensky. 

The CDC decision is based on evidence and data that has been gathered as some schools have been slowly reopening these past few months. A study from the University of Utah found that COVID-19 spread was low with students less than six feet apart in classrooms even though spread in that school’s community was high. 

Dr. Walensky noted that data coming from kindergarten classrooms in Springfield, Missouri showed that transmission rates in classrooms were actually lower than rates in the community because classrooms had been implementing “multiple layered prevention strategies.”

These prevention strategies include continuing necessary precautions, like wearing masks and regularly screening teachers and students for COVID-19. “I want to emphasize that these recommendations are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask-wearing,” said Dr. Walensky. 

If masks cannot be worn in school activities like sports, band practice, or other activities that can increase exhalation, the CDC is maintaining the 6 feet distance in a well-ventilated or outdoor space. 

The work to get teachers vaccinated continues

As part of the ongoing process to prioritize teachers for vaccinations, Dr. Walensky reminded any eligible educator or staff member to visit cdc.gov to set up an appointment through their federal pharmacy program. The CDC, working with local communities, has made it so more than 9000 pharmacies and prioritized K-12 educators. 

“I’m hopeful that we are turning a corner of the pandemic. Getting our children back to school in-person instruction as soon as possible is a critical first step in doing so,” concluded Dr. Walensky.