CDC says it’s OK for students to sit 3 feet apart in classrooms

New CDC guidance says schools can move desks 3 feet apart for COVID-19 mitigation instead of 6 feet. (Stock photo/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have revised their guidance to schools on how far apart students should be spaced in a classroom, now saying desks can be placed 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as schools across the country have faced increasing pressure to fully resume in-person classes after a year of virtual classes.

The Biden administration released guidance last month detailing five mitigation techniques that should be used to safely conduct in-person learning, including mask wearing, social distancing of at least 6 feet, frequent hand washing, proper cleaning of classroom surfaces and ventilation, and rapid testing.

Friday’s updated guidance says elementary schools can safely use a distance of 3 feet between desks in classrooms, so long as masks are worn and other safety precautions are taken.

Middle and high schools also can rely on the reduced distance in classrooms, unless they are in an area with high risk of community transmission of the virus.

Six feet of distance is still recommended between adults working in schools and between adults and students, as well as in common areas and at times when masks can’t be worn, such as while eating.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the new guidelines follow several studies showing the smaller distance requirement could be used safely.

“These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” Walensky said.

While the CDC had been recommending 6 feet of distance, other health organizations had suggested a smaller distance would be safe for students: The World Health Organization suggested a little more than 3 feet is sufficient in schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers and other school personnel, offered a skeptical statement in response to the new guidelines.

“While we hope the CDC is right and these new studies convince the community that the most enduring safety standard of this pandemic— the 6-foot rule — can be jettisoned if we all wear masks, we will reserve judgment until we review them, especially as they apply in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges.”

Walensky said she has spoken with leaders from teachers’ unions: “They know that we need to follow the science and to make our guidance based on that science, and they’ve been very respectful of that.”