WASHINGTON — Having students sit 6 feet apart in classrooms, as opposed to 3, offers no greater protection against the coronavirus, according to a major new study, whose findings come as schools across the U.S. struggle to reopen amid debates over safety.
President Biden has made bringing students back into classrooms a priority. The debate over classroom spacing is complicating those efforts. With these new findings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may come under pressure to revise its guidelines, which currently call for 6 feet of spacing in most situations.
Having desks spaced only 3 feet apart would allow a greater number of students to sit in each classroom. At 6 feet apart, the size of each class must be severely reduced. And since schools often don’t have space to add classrooms or additional teachers to teach in them, some students have to stay home, even if other conditions for safe reopening are met.
The current CDC guidance of 6-foot distancing is “very physically restraining for a lot of districts,” said Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University who has written on the damage caused by keeping schools closed and has tracked reopening efforts across the country.
“If our goal is a state of normalcy, there are a lot of districts where you just can’t do that with 6 feet,” Oster told Yahoo News. “Many, many more places would have no problem opening if they could do 3 feet.”
For the new study, researchers looked at 251 Massachusetts school districts that were open for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. In those districts, 537,336 students went to school and 99,390 adults taught and worked there.
The study found “no significant difference” in coronavirus infection rates for either children or adults between the two classroom configurations. That means, researchers concluded, “lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.”
Massachusetts has a mask mandate in place for all students, teachers and staff in public schools. An earlier study published by the CDC found that schools in Wisconsin were able to stay open safely, even during a time of intense community spread, simply by mandating masks.
Given the relative availability of masks, some have questioned why the Biden administration tethered school reopening to the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
The new study is also important because it was not, like the Wisconsin study, conducted in a rural region. Massachusetts has the fourth-highest population density in the nation and has many aging school buildings, making the conditions comparable to those in other large and urban districts, where decades of disinvestment and inattention have left some schools with windows that won’t open.
Late last year, Massachusetts teachers staged a “sickout” to demand 6 feet of distancing in the classroom. Unions that represent teachers across the nation have made 6 feet a standard demand. The national teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, to which nearly 2 million teachers belong, called for 6 feet in the reopening guidance it published last spring.
“Now is not the time to be less stringent about guidelines,” the head of the union representing Massachusetts teachers told a local news outlet, citing new strains of the coronavirus, some of which appear to be more contagious.
Critics expressed disappointment to see the CDC endorse the 6-foot separation in the guidance released last month, charging that the distance requirement is a tactic to prevent schools from fully opening. Economist Vladimir Kogan and oncologist Vinay Prasad argued in an opinion article for the health news site Stat that the guidance would “work to provide political cover for interest groups and districts that want to delay in-person school.”
Before the new research was published, CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner told Yahoo News that the CDC “is always evaluating its guidance. As new science becomes available, the agency assesses such and if necessary will make changes to guidance to reflect the science.”
He would not elaborate on whether the 6-foot guidance would stay in place, as especially as teachers become vaccinated at greater rates. President Biden has said he wants all teachers vaccinated by the end of March.
The current CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, is a resident of the wealthy Boston suburb of Newton. As records made public in a complaint to Newton’s city council show, last July Mayor Ruthanne Fuller emailed Walensky, who has three high-school-aged children, to ask about safe classroom distancing. “If people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet,” Walensky wrote back.
The city, though, went with the 6-foot distance guideline.
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