The change comes more than a month after the Biden administration announced its school reopening guidelines Feb. 12. The CDC’s advice then recommended schools “establish policies and implement structural interventions to promote physical distance of at least six feet” and that “cohorting or podding” could help minimize exposure.
The agency soon after came under intense scrutiny by public health officials and scientists across the country who argued it was safe for schools to maintain 3 feet of physical distance to keep children safe. The dialogue was part of a larger conversation about how the agency’s guidelines included too many restrictions and would limit schools’ ability to reopen.
In a testimony this week before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency was looking at several other unpublished studies that supported decreasing the recommended physical distance.
“As soon as our guidance came out, it became very clear that 6 feet was among the things that was keeping schools closed, and in that context science evolves,” Walensky said.
The change in physical distancing measures raises questions about the health agency’s current thinking on how Covid-19 spreads and to what degree social distancing plays a role in reducing transmission. The CDC currently recommends that all Americans maintain 6 feet of distance from people who are not in their household.
The CDC’s updated guidance was likely to mollify GOP lawmakers and other critics of the health agency’s school reopening framework, but the announcement prompted a muted reaction from at least one leading teachers’ union.
“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 judgement until we review them,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “Until today, the literature on reducing distancing has been inconclusive at best and misleading at worst. The studies so far have often approached distancing in a vacuum, without measuring the effect of changes to other mitigation strategies, including masking.”
Friday’s announcement follows weeks of internal discussions within the CDC and among senior health officials in the Biden administration about whether there was enough evidence to support the change.
The CDC’s updated guidance cites three studies from the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report which “build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken,” according to a statement released by the agency.
All three studies showed kindergarten through grade 12 schools could reopen safely with proper mitigation strategies, but only one study specifically focused on distancing between students. That research, conducted in Salt Lake County, Utah in 20 elementary schools over the course of six weeks, found elementary schools could reopen safely, with minimal in-school transmission, if mask wearing was universal — even when 6 feet of distancing between students could not be maintained.
Two other studies recently released by the agency appear to reinforce the six foot requirement among high school students. One of those studies looked at a high school in New Jersey with almost 1,200 students. Testing identified 19 cases of Covid-19 in teachers and staff and eight cases in students between August and November 2020. But, the study said, with “comprehensive prevention strategies” including distancing of 6 feet, outbreaks can be prevented even when the virus is spreading in the broader community.
Another study conducted in Florida among high school football players which showed that a Covid-19 outbreak among team members resulted in the significant loss of in-person learning days for students infected with the virus and their contacts. “Spread among the team likely occurred during practice and was caused by infrequent mask use; inadequate physical distancing and ventilation,” the study said. “These findings reinforce why it’s important for school sports teams to implement recommended CDC prevention strategies, including keeping students at least 6 feet apart, wearing masks consistently during practice, and testing players and staff members.”
Senior officials inside the CDC also relied in part on a study conducted in Massachusetts, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the matter. The research team found no substantial differences in the number of Covid-19 cases among students or staff in schools that implemented a policy of physical distancing of three feet along with other health measures such as universal mask wearing.
“We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle.
Michael Stratford and Juan Perez contributed to this report.