CDC now says students can be 3 feet apart

ABC Science Collaborative called for social distancing change in early March

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have yet again updated their guidance for school operations and openings.

NC Congressman Dan Bishop (R-09) took notice.

Last June as discussions about what the fall school year might look like were starting to emerge, I tried to trace the droplets and the six-foot rule. The CDC gave a number of reasons and cited various studies surrounding the six-foot rule and which masks are/were most effective.

On Friday, March 19, guidance the CDC issued an update on social distancing in K-12 classrooms:

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is updating K–12 school guidance to reflect the latest science on physical distance between students in classrooms. CDC now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings."

This is a major break from the six feet social distancing guidance not only imposed on schools but also mandated in all public venues nationwide. The CDC’s update goes on to state the social distancing change is only for schools and children and not for adults or venues outside of a school setting.

The CDC’s K-12 update is further broken down by grade levels, adding a contingency for middle and high schools in areas where “transmission is high.”

Earlier this month, the ABC Science Collaborative (ABCSC) dissected the CDC’s K-12 guidance, in particular, the six-foot rule and the use of community transmission rates in dictating what reopening plan a school or district should use.

The ABCSC’s report stated that "Community transmission has extremely limited scientific merit and no school-based, individual-risk data to support it.” The report also said distancing could and should be moved to three feet instead of six where mitigation protocols were in place.

On Friday afternoon following the CDC’s announcing its updated guidance, the teachers union affiliate, the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), issued a statement which called the changes “not the ideal”:

“From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NCAE has urged that we follow the science in determining how best to ensure the safety of students, families, and educators. With the CDC changing their guidance today around minimum social distancing in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet in elementary schools, we want to emphasize that 3 feet is an absolute minimum, not the ideal,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “The CDC continues to recommend keeping students and teachers in cohorts throughout the day, maintaining 6 feet of distance between those groups whenever possible, and continuing to strictly adhere to other safety protocols, including constant masking and vigilant hand washing in order to keep educators and students as safe as possible. In middle schools and high schools where community transmission is high, as it continues to be in many North Carolina counties, the CDC advises students stay 6 feet apart if cohorting is not possible.

“For the sake of public trust and clarity, we urge the CDC to provide far more detail about the rationale for the change from 6 feet to 3 feet for students in schools, clearly and publicly account for differences in types of school environments, new virus variants, differences in mitigation compliance, and how study participants were tested for the virus. 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.”

The NCAE president called on the CDC to provide detail of the “rationale” being used to shift from six feet to three feet, however, the CDC’s guidance announcement already gives the rationale:

“Three studies, published in today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), also address spread of SARS-CoV-2 in schools. Taken together, these studies 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.”