The 6-Foot Covid Rule Is Keeping Kids Out of Class


One year into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open.” That’s a recognition that remote learning is doing incalculable harm to America’s children. Unfortunately, the CDC’s own social-distancing guidelines have made the task of reopening schools even harder.

The CDC recommends that physical distancing of “at least 6 feet” between students “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.” This is based largely on research on how pathogens spread through coughing and sneezing. Many businesses and indoor public facilities follow the guidance — but strict adherence to it has cut classroom capacity in many public schools, especially those in high-population-density districts, by 50% or more. As schools reopen, the 6-foot rule will require educators to maintain “hybrid” schedules that limit the number of students receiving in-person instruction at any one time.

Such restrictions might be justified if maintaining the 6-foot rule in schools meaningfully reduced the chances of Covid outbreaks. The available data, however, shows that keeping students 6 feet apart generally isn’t necessary as long as they all wear masks. A Lancet review of 172 studies on coronavirus transmission found that roughly 3 feet of separation “is strongly associated with protection” from Covid. Infection rates in reopened U.S. schools also suggest negligible benefits from keeping the 6-foot rule in place. A recent CDC study of schools in Wood County, Wisconsin, found that out of 191 Covid cases reported among students and staff, just 4% were linked to in-school transmission, even though more than half of the country’s grade-schoolers sat less than 6 feet apart. Earlier this month, a study of more than 520,000 students in 242 school districts in Massachusetts concluded that coronavirus case rates in districts that observed between 3 and 6 feet of distance were no higher than those that required 6 feet or more.

The 6-foot rule has put the CDC at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has deemed 3 feet of distance between students enough for a return to classrooms, and the World Health Organization, which recommends 1 meter, or roughly 3.3 feet. States including Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and Ohio have decided to override the CDC’s guidance and allow schools to reopen without requiring that students remain 6 feet apart.

On Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the agency is still assessing the data on physical distancing in schools and will consider “revisiting our guidances in that context.” Further delay is costly; by failing to alter the 6-foot rule, the CDC has bolstered the arguments of teachers’ unions that oppose bringing more students back to the classroom except under the strictest conditions. Walensky should move quickly to issue new guidelines that make clear that schools should reopen for all students, with the 6-foot rule reduced to 3 feet for younger children, who are at the lowest risk of severe Covid cases. The rule could also be eased in high schools that have adequate ventilation and personal protective supplies and where mask wearing is mandatory for students and staff. Until teachers are vaccinated, schools should make reasonable accommodations for adults in high-risk categories. They should allow those teachers to remain 6 feet from students in the classroom and continue standard social-distancing practices in areas where adults congregate.

Helping America’s students recover from months of remote learning will require time, money and a longer school year. But the first priority is getting them back into the classroom — and the CDC needs to do its part.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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