The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its K-12 school guidance to reflect the latest research on physical distancing between students in classrooms, but previous guidance remains intact for school buses.
The updated guidance released on Friday states that elementary, middle, and high school students should remain at least 3 feet apart in classrooms, where mask use is universal. However, if community transmission is high, the CDC recommends middle and high school students remain at least 6 feet apart if cohorting is not possible.
The CDC defines cohorting as keeping groups of students together with the same peers and school staff throughout the school day to reduce the risk of transmission. The CDC states that COVID-19 transmission dynamics are different in older students, as they are more likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and spread it than younger children.
A CDC spokesperson told School Transportation News that the agency still recommends creating distance between children on the school bus, for example sitting one child per seat and skipping rows, where possible. It does state children from the same household can sit together. School bus windows should also be open to improve ventilation when it does not create a safety hazard.
“The new guidelines clearly provide schools a bit more flexibility with respect to getting more children back onto the bus,” commented Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association “We continue to stress that the school bus remains the safest form of transportation to school for students, so guidance that keeps children riding the bus is certainly welcome.”
Other CDC changes include the clarification that ventilation is a strategy to clean and maintain healthy facilities and the removal of recommending physical barriers in classrooms.
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“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky. “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.”
However, the CDC continues to recommend 6 feet of distancing between adults and students in school buildings and between students in common areas, such as school lobbies and auditoriums, and when masks cannot be worn, such as when eating or drinking.
Six feet is also still recommended during activities such as singing, shouting, brand practice, sports, or physical exercise. It states these activities should be moved outside or to large, well-ventilated spaces, if possible. The CDC states that 6 feet should also be adhered to in community settings outside of the classroom.
A report published on March 10 in Clinical and Infectious Diseases concludes that lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings. The report states that as long masking mandates are adhered to, three feet of social distancing doesn’t negatively impact student or staff safety.
The CDC also cited three studies published in Friday’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that build evidence that physical distancing of at least three feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings, where mask use is universal and other mitigation strategies are taken.
“Given the crucial services schools offer and the benefits of in-person learning, it is critical for K-12 schools to open and remain open for in-person instruction, as safely and as soon as possible,” the CDC stated. “Schools should be the last settings to close because of COVID-19 and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. Working together, school leaders and community members can take actions to keep schools open for in-person learning by protecting students, teachers, and school staff where they live, work, learn, and play.”
The World Health Organization previously updated its guidance to allow for 3.3 feet, or 1 meter, of social distancing.