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CDC says three feet of distance safe in schools

Federal health officials on Friday announced updated guidance on physical distancing in schools, now saying students need only be 3 feet apart, rather than 6.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students can maintain a distance of three feet or more in classroom settings so long as there is universal masking, a change that's aimed at speeding the return to in-person learning.

The recommendation is for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial, the CDC said.

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Middle school and high school students should be at least 6 feet apart in communities where transmission is high, the CDC said, if cohorting is not possible. 

Cohorting is when groups of students are kept together with the same peers and staff throughout the school day to reduce the risk for spread throughout the school. According to the CDC, older students are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and spread it than younger children.

The CDC also recommends 6 feet of distance in common areas, like lobbies and auditoriums, and during activities like singing, shouting, band or sport practices. 

Health officials in recent days have previewed the recommendations and said they will better reflect changing science, and on Friday the agency published three new studies that show schools can operate safely in person, even when community transmission of the virus is high.

"CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFauci warns of 'localized surges' in areas with low vaccination rates The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden support, gas tax questions remain on infrastructure Overnight Health Care: Biden touts 300 million vaccine doses in 150 days | Biden warns of 'potentially deadlier' delta variant | Public option fades with little outcry from progressives MORE said in a statement. “Safe in-person instruction gives our kids access to critical social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to succeed. These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.” 

Three feet is the minimum distance endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. For many schools, keeping students 6 feet apart is not feasible. In some cases, there's no distancing at all.

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But two of the largest and most powerful teachers unions Friday indicated they were not likely to support the idea, and were concerned about the impact in urban classrooms which could become much more crowded, especially in buildings with poor ventilation.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the union was "concerned this change has been driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science on aerosol exposure and transmission."

“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, especially as they apply in districts with high community spread and older buildings with ventilation challenges," Weingarten said.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, called on the CDC to provide far more details about its rationale.

"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," Pringle said in a statement.

The CDC's insistence on 6 feet of separation has been a flash point of the school reopening debate. The agency has acknowledged that in-person schooling is not a major driver of community spread and that virus transmission is rarer in schools compared with the surrounding community.

Yet the most recent CDC guidance from last month suggests that schools located in communities with low or moderate virus transmission implement 6 feet of distancing “to the greatest extent possible.”

Walensky on Wednesday told members of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee the agency was "looking to update" its guidance based on new data.

“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.

Updated at 12:17 p.m.