New study suggests 3 feet of physical distancing doesn’t negatively impact student or staff safety

With the debate continuing over the safety of resuming in-person instruction, a new study has added to the growing research that schools can reopen safely even with students and staff maintaining three feet of distance between them versus six feet.

Published by the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the study suggests that K-12 schools can reopen safely for in-person instruction with children maintaining three feet of physical distance paired with implementing other mitigation measures, such as wearing masks.

School districts with different physical distancing requirements (three feet versus six feet) in Massachusetts were analyzed over a 16-week period, and the study controlled for community transmission. Student case rates in the 242 districts were similar, and cases among school staff in districts were also similar.

Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.

Increasing physical distancing requirements from three to six feet in school settings is not associated with a reduction in SARS-CoV-2 cases among students or staff, provided other mitigation measures, such as universal masking, are implemented. These findings may be used to update guidelines about SARS-CoV-2 mitigation measures in school settings.

In Minnesota, Gov. Walz’s Safe Learning Plan “strongly recommends” three feet of physical distance or more for elementary students, and six feet of physical distance “whenever feasible” for middle and high school students. “When six feet distancing cannot be met, a minimum of three feet of physical distance between students must be maintained.”

Some Minnesota school districts have said the social distancing guidelines have made bringing back larger class sizes more challenging. This study could help alleviate the pressure districts may feel to maintain six feet of distancing, and relaxed distancing requirements could also help increase “the number of students who are able to benefit from additional in-person learning,” the authors state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not issued official guidance on shortening its recommendation of at least six feet of distancing between students, but according to Dr. Fauci, the CDC is looking into the data, reports the Business Insider.

Asked whether the data suggested three feet was a safe distance, Fauci said: “It does indeed.”

He said he was “very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like three feet are OK under certain circumstances.”