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Why 3 feet may be the new rule for school

A girl wearing a face mask raises her hand in a classroom.

Many kids can now learn a little closer together, as long as they are properly masked up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC revised its guidelines to reflect the most recent science on safe distancing during COVID-19. This change stems from studies of schools in the U.S. and other countries. It suggests that when schools take other precautions, they can safely reopen or remain open even if kids are less than 6 feet apart. Experts hope these new guidelines will help more kids get back to in-person learning.

When is 3 feet enough?

The relaxed advice on distancing does not apply to all kids at all times. But when wearing masks, students can be just 3 feet apart:

  • In elementary school classrooms.
  • In middle school and high school classrooms, if the community does not have a high rate of new COVID-19 cases.

Middle and high school kids should stay 6 feet apart if:

  • The spread of COVID-19 in the area is high.
  • Cohorting is not possible. (That is when a group of students stays together during the school day. They do not mix with other students or staff.)

That's because older kids are more likely to be exposed to and spread the virus than younger kids, CDC notes.

Studies also show that the virus spreads more easily among staff than it does among students. So CDC says schools should also keep a distance of 6 feet between teachers and other staff, as well as between adults and students.

And 6 feet is still best:

  • In common areas like lobbies and meeting halls.
  • When masks cannot be worn, such as when eating.
  • At times when kids tend to breathe out more. This includes when kids sing, shout, play in band, play sports or exercise.

Part of a bigger picture

CDC says distancing is just one of the prevention tactics schools should use. Along with making sure that kids and staff wear face masks, schools should also clean often, improve ventilation, use contact tracing to inform families of exposures, and encourage everyone to wash their hands.

Visit our Coronavirus health topic center for more of the latest updates.

Reviewed 4/26/2021

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