After months of heated debate about whether schools should maintain 6 feet of distancing or could get by with 3, a newly published study examining Massachusetts schools revealed there were no significant differences in the rates of COVID-19 cases between the two, a finding that could open the door for more students to return to classrooms.
State education officials have been pushing for a standard of 3 feet of distancing in schools since last summer with growing support from the medical community. But many local school districts have resisted and instead embraced the 6-foot recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many teachers unions raised safety concerns and secured promises that schools would maintain 6 feet of distance.
The effort to keep students and staff 6 feet from each other during the pandemic forced many school districts to alternate students for in-person learning because they lack enough space to accommodate all students at once. But strict adherence to that standard is not necessary when mask wearing and other safety measures are in place, according to the study, which was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal, “Clinical Infectious Diseases.”
The study also concluded that the rates of COVID-19 in schools were lower than among the general public, an assertion that the Baker administration has made in the past.
“Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety,” concluded the researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, and other institutions.
The study examined COVID-19 positivity rates in 251 school districts across Massachusetts since September and found that for the most part, the rate of COVID-19 cases among students and staff followed similar patterns in schools adhering to the 6-foot standard and those distancing only 3 feet. The cumulative rates were also about the same.
In another significant finding, the rates of COVID-19 cases in schools were lower than in their cities and towns, suggesting schools are potentially a safer place for both students and educators to be.
There was one notable blip in the data: For a brief time in November, coronavirus cases grew at a faster clip in schools with 3 feet of social distancing, which the authors of the report considered insignificant because the cumulative rates were ultimately similar.
The study offers a rare scientific examination of COVID-19 data in school settings and the authors said the findings add to a growing body of evidence worldwide that transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 is low in schools.
“Schools are a very safe environment for students and staff,” said Dr. Elissa M. Schechter-Perkins, one of the report’s authors and associate professor in the department of emergency medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center.
But the study’s findings did little to persuade the state’s largest teachers union that anything short of 6 feet is OK.
“The CDC is still recommending 6 feet of distancing in schools,” Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a statement in response to Globe questions about the findings. “The CDC is the authoritative body on this subject.”
Debates over the appropriate distancing in schools have been intensifying in recent weeks, since state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley ordered districts to fully reopen, starting with elementary schools on April 5 and middle schools on April 28. Districts can seek waivers from the edict, but Riley said on Tuesday that he would not approve a waiver for any district that is providing more than 3 feet of social distancing.
Regardless of whether a district is provided a waiver, parents will have the option of keeping their children at home in remote classes for the remainder of the school year.
The state’s strong push for 3 feet of social distancing differs from CDC guidelines for reopening schools, which emphasizes 6 feet of social distancing “to the greatest extent possible” when there is low-to-moderate community spread, and at least 6 feet of distancing when community spread is substantial or high. But the state’s guidance on 3 feet aligns with recommendations from the World Health Organization and other research that has found minimal difference between 3 and 6 feet, when mask-wearing and other mitigation strategies are in play.
Riley said in a statement that the study’s findings should provide further assurances to local districts that 3 feet is safe.
“Medical experts and public health officials, including Dr. Fauci, have endorsed our administration’s push to return children to school as practical and realistic,” Riley said. The statement also touted the state’s first-in-the-nation pool testing initiative as a way to keep students, teachers, and staff safe.
Perkins faulted the CDC guidelines for being too heavily focused on the prevention of COVID-19 transmission without considering the other public health issues emerging during the pandemic, including social isolation, anxiety, and depression among many students as well as learning loss.
“We know there have been so many negative outcomes with school closures,” she said.
Westyn Branch-Elliman, one of the report’s authors who is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an infectious disease specialist, said she was surprised at how similar the safety protocols were among schools, except when it came to social distancing. The authors had hoped to analyze ventilation measures schools undertook, but information was too vague and scattered to draw reliable conclusions, she said.
The study relied on a variety of publicly available data, including community positivity rates collected by the state and COVID-19 cases that school districts report weekly to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The researchers were also able to control for poverty.
While the study may be welcome news for those pushing for a full return of schooling, fights over social distancing are not the only issues tripping up reopening plans. Districts and teacher unions are pushing to get educators vaccinated quickly and sorting through the logistics of opening up full time, including how to handle lunch periods.
In Braintree, for instance, the Braintree Educators Association announced Wednesday it had voted no confidence in its School Committee over its reopening plan. Braintree is planning to fully open its high school next Monday with 6 feet of social distancing, made possible because enrollment is about half what it was a few decades ago. The district also plans to fully reopen its lower grade schools in April.
Truong Dinh, the union president, faulted the plan for coming “out of the blue” when it was announced before February vacation.
“We are still concerned about safety,” he said, noting teachers also don’t have enough time to prepare.
School Committee Chair Thomas Devin called the vote disappointing.
“No matter what we say or do, they won’t have confidence,” he said.