CDC shortens Covid social distancing guidelines for kids in school to 3 feet with masks

  • The CDC revised its guidance on social distancing in schools, saying most students can now sit three feet apart instead of six feet so long as they are wearing masks.
  • The recommendation is for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial.
  • In communities where transmission is high, the CDC recommends that middle school and high school students remain at least six feet apart if schools aren't able to keep students and teachers in assigned groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday revised its guidance on social distancing in schools, saying most students can now sit three feet apart instead of six feet so long as they are wearing masks.

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

In communities where transmission is high, the CDC recommends that middle school and high school students remain at least six feet apart if schools aren't able to keep students and teachers in assigned groups, the agency said. In elementary schools, where younger children have been shown to be at less risk of transmitting the virus than teens, kids can stay safe at three feet apart with masks, the CDC said.

The CDC said it continues to recommend at least six feet distance between adults in schools and between adults and students. It also still recommends six feet social distancing in common areas, when eating, during in-door activities, such as band practice and sports, and in settings outside of the classroom.

"CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky 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."

The updated guidance from federal health officials comes after a study published last week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested public schools could safely reopen as long as kids were three feet apart and other mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, were enforced.

Some schools had complained that maintaining a six feet rule was not feasible. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both OK'd three feet social distancing.

Walensky told lawmakers on Wednesday that the CDC was working on updated guidance for schools. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday that shortened social guidelines would "likely" happen. He was also asked Sunday about the study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

"What the CDC wants to do is they want to accumulate data and when the data shows that there is an ability to be 3 feet they will act accordingly," Fauci told CNN. "I can assure you within a reasonable amount of time, quite reasonable, they will be giving guidelines according to the data they have."

President Joe Biden has made safely reopening the nation's schools for in-person learning a focus of his first 100 days in office. Some parents have been forced to stay at home to watch their children instead of going to work.

The administration has said it is pouring $10 billion from the recently passed stimulus package into Covid-19 testing for schools in an effort to hasten the return to in-person learning across the country. The money will be used in part to provide diagnostic tests to symptomatic teachers, staff and students, as well as those who don't have symptoms but might have been exposed to an infectious person. 

The CDC came under scrutiny last month after Walensky said teachers do not need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 before schools can safely reopen. The White House walked back Walensky's comments, and Biden later urged states to states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff.

"Let me be clear, we can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated," Biden said March 2 at the White House. "But time and again, we've heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about it."

–CNBC's Will Feuer contributed to this report.

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