(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Friday updated its COVID-19 mitigation guidance to narrow the acceptable distance between students who are wearing masks to at least three feet from at least six feet, potentially easing the path for schools that have struggled to reopen under previous recommendations.
The new recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a boost to the Biden administration’s goal of reopening in-person learning for millions of public school students without sparking outbreaks of the virus.
“The revised CDC guidance is a great step,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. It “reflects the fact that schools… are not drivers of infections,” he added.
Many schools continue to teach students remotely more than a year after the novel coronavirus prompted widespread closures across the United States.
The CDC said the new guidance was based on data from schools in Utah, Missouri and Florida that suggests transmission of COVID-19 in schools is relatively low when precautions such as mask-wearing are employed, including in cases where students do not maintain six feet of distance.
The guidance applies to students from kindergarten through high school and in areas with low, moderate, and substantial community transmission of COVID-19. Middle and high school students in communities with high levels of COVID-19 should stay six feet apart unless their schoolday contact can be limited to a single small group of students and staff.
Students should continue to maintain six feet of distance when interacting with teachers and other school staff and when eating, the CDC said.
The CDC has been under pressure to relax its guidance to schools and Director Rochelle Walensky said this week that the agency was looking at data in part from a recent study in Massachusetts which suggested tighter spacing had not impacted COVID-19 transmission.
One of the CDC studies released on Friday looked at 20 elementary schools in Utah during a period of high COVID-19 transmission rates in the broader community. It showed that in-school transmission rates among masked students were low even though they maintained an average distance between seats of only three feet.
Many schools do not have the space in classrooms to maintain six feet between students, and outside of the United States public health agency recommendations for social distancing start at about three feet and range to more than six.
The guidance urged schools to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing of students and said such regular use of screening tests offers added protection for schools that require fewer than six feet of separation.
School districts should expand screenings for students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, and consider universal screening prior to athletic events.
The agency continues to recommend quarantines for anyone who has been within six feet of someone sick with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.
The White House on Wednesday said it would allocate $10 billion to states to support COVID-19 screening testing for teachers, staff and students to assist schools resume in-person instruction.
The CDC said students are required to wear masks on school buses and any other forms of public transit they use to get to school. The agency issued an order in February requiring travelers to wear masks when using public transit.
The Biden administration has urged states to vaccinate teachers and childcare workers, with the goal of getting all of them inoculated by the end of March.
(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell and Caroline Humer; Editing by Andrea Ricci)