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New federal guidance supports what Mass. school officials said for months: 3 feet of distance between most students can be enough

A third-grade classroom at the Bentley Academy Innovation School in Salem on Feb. 4, 2021.
A third-grade classroom at the Bentley Academy Innovation School in Salem on Feb. 4, 2021.Nicolaus Czarnecki/Pool

State education leaders hailed the news on Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now agrees with what Massachusetts officials have argued since last summer: Three feet of physical distancing in classrooms is enough to keep the coronavirus from spreading in schools when other mitigation measures are in place.

The CDC’s updated guidance lowered the recommended physical distancing between students in classrooms from 6 feet to 3 feet, as long as other key precautions are followed, such as universal masking. The difference is crucial because many schools lack the space to ensure 6-foot distancing between students, so they’ve had to adopt hybrid schedules in which children split their time between remote learning and the classroom.

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“The administration is pleased that the CDC has revised its guidance, which was in part informed by a Massachusetts-based physicians’ study, to make clear that 3 feet of distance between students is safe with proper protocols,” Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Education, wrote in a statement. More than 50 Massachusetts school districts have already successfully implemented less than 6 feet of distancing in their classrooms.

“The administration believes the classroom is the safest and best place for students when protocols are followed, and will continue to support districts with resources like pooled testing and more than $1 billion in funding,” she wrote.

Teacher unions, which have long disagreed with the state’s contention that 3-foot distancing is sufficient, on Friday continued to raise concerns about transmission in schools with outdated or broken ventilation systems, or without the space to properly physically distance students. In some communities, educators are also still struggling to get coronavirus vaccine appointments. The unions are resisting Governor Charlie Baker’s timetable for reopening in early April.

“We can’t just say, ‘Three feet works,’ and put a period at the end of that sentence,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.

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Distancing in classrooms is only one of the concerns that educators have about safety. Though the CDC’s new guidance changes the recommended physical distancing between students, it reinforces the message that it’s vital for schools to use many mitigation measures at once, said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“It really continues to reinforce the position that the unions have been taking,” she said. “We’ve been advocating for an entire year to take all of the CDC guidance as a whole.”

That includes mask-wearing, proper ventilation for classrooms, routine surveillance COVID-19 testing in schools, and vaccinations for all school employees, union leaders say. Pushing the start of full-time school back to April 26, after April school vacation, would give all school employees a chance to get at least once vaccine dose, Najimy said.

Massachusetts schools are slated to return to full-time, in-person learning in the coming weeks, with elementary schools required to return full-time by April 5 and middle schools to follow on April 28. No full-time return date has been set for high-schoolers yet.

But the leaders of Massachusetts’ top teachers unions want the timeline to be pushed back, and they have the support of several state legislators. State representatives Lindsay Sabadosa and James Hawkins filed emergency legislation last week to keep state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley from mandating a full return to in-person learning before April 26.

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A recent study examining Massachusetts schools found no significant differences in COVID-19 transmission rates between classrooms following 6 feet of physical distancing and those following just 3 feet. The research, published March 10 in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, concluded that “lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.”

Under the new federal guidance, elementary schools are recommended to keep students 3 feet apart, regardless of community transmission rates. Middle and high schools can also keep students 3 feet apart in most cases, unless community transmission is high and cohorting (keeping groups of students together throughout the day) is not possible. In those cases, students should be 6 feet apart.

In Massachusetts, high community transmission rates statewide mean most middle and high schools will likely need to keep 6 feet of distance between students for the foreseeable future, said Daniele Lantagne, an associate professor of environmental health at Tufts University.

Students, the guidance said, should still keep 6 feet of distance when they are in common areas in the school, during activities that can increase exhalation such as chorus or exercise, or when masks cannot be worn, like during lunch. Teachers, staff members, and other adults should keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and students, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC director, said during a press briefing on Friday.

Many public health experts, including Lantagne, have asserted 3 feet of distancing is safe when those other mitigation measures are followed, particularly for younger students. According to the CDC, the guidelines for middle and high schools in high transmission communities is different because COVID-19 “transmission dynamics” are different for older students.

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“You need to be nuanced with the recommendation for children over 12 as they can transmit more like adults,” said Lantagne, who cosigned a letter to Riley last month supporting his 3-foot guidance; the letter has since been signed by more than 300 people.

Even with a new federal guideline, Lantagne said, the decision of whether to have older students separated by 3 feet or 6 feet can be a difficult one that varies from community to community.

“Sometimes I think it can be hard,” she said, “because you don’t have the exact research you need to answer the exact policy question you’re trying to.”


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