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Dozens of physicians urge Mass. school leaders: 3 feet of distance between students is enough

At Wellesley High School, the auditorium is used as a socially distanced classroom space.
At Wellesley High School, the auditorium is used as a socially distanced classroom space.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Three feet is enough.

That’s the message from a group of more than 60 physicians, public health experts, and infectious disease specialists, who are urging Massachusetts education leaders to keep their guidance in place asking schools to have 3 feet of distance between students, rather than the 6 feet recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Massachusetts private and public schools have opened with as little as 3 feet of distance between students and have proven that with these other mitigation measures, in-school transmission is exceedingly rare,” the physicians wrote in a letter to state education commissioner Jeff Riley on Feb. 14. “The closer spacing fails when these other mitigation pieces are not in place. This mirrors data from other states and other countries.”

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State guidelines published in June 2020 set the social-distancing requirement for schools at a minimum of 3 feet, a threshold that Riley said was endorsed by the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and would offer the best path for districts to get as many students as possible back into school in person.

Governor Charlie Baker, Riley, and other state leaders on Tuesday announced a proposal that would require school districts to start bringing students back for full-time, in-person learning, starting with elementary school students in April. Asked during a press conference at the State House Tuesday whether schools would be required to adhere to 6 feet of social distancing, Riley said the state is sticking with its guidance of a minimum of 3 feet, with more distance whenever possible.

“If you can do more, you should do so,” Riley said. “I would just remind people that in Europe and Asia and in fact in many states in this country, people are at three feet or less, so we’re sticking with our guidance, which is three feet.”

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The group of physicians who sent the letter said they were concerned with the CDC’s latest school guidance recommending 6 feet, and wanted state education leaders to know they felt the June 2020 guidance from Riley would be “more appropriate to guide Massachusetts.”

In some districts, “it’s logistically impossible to do 6 foot distancing and have all the kids return,” said Gabrielle A. Jacquet, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, in an interview. That’s why requiring only three feet of distance is important, Jacquet said; it will let more students return to school while still keeping a safe distance. Jacquet was one of dozens who cosigned the letter.

“We hope that by seeing all of these people from different specialties and fields and different walks of life that everyone will feel more reassured in what Massachusetts is doing,” she said.

Daniele Lantagne, an associate professor of environmental health at Tufts University, said many people who oppose the 3-foot distancing, rather than 6 feet, don’t fully understand the mitigation measures that public health experts are recommending.

The 3-feet social distancing, for example, should only really be used for people under the age of 12, Lantagne said in an interview. Adults and older students should continue to stay 6 feet apart.

“When there is in-school transmission, it’s almost always because of mitigation failures between adults,” she said. “It’s either adult to adult or adult to child.”

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Also, Lantagne said, if other mitigation measures aren’t taken, 3 feet will not be a large enough distance between students. When students take off their masks for a lunch break, for example, 3 feet is not enough.

“I think a lot of people think of 3 feet as a return to normal and I want to be very clear: It’s not a return to normal,” she said. “It’s still physical distancing.”

Read the full letter:



Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.