March 19 (UPI) — With masks, most children can safely attend school while staying 3 feet apart from each other, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said in new COVID-19 guidelines published Friday.
The revised guidelines drop the social distancing recommendation from 6 feet.
The new recommendation stipulates that all students, teachers and staff members in elementary schools wear masks to cover their mouths and noses.
Similarly, middle and high school students should be at least 3 feet apart in classrooms in which mask use is universal and in communities in which COVID-19 transmission is low, moderate or substantial, the agency said.
However, middle school and high school students should maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet in communities in which virus transmission is high, if “cohorting” is not possible.
Cohorting occurs when groups of students are kept together with peers and staff members throughout the school day to reduce the risk for virus spread. This limits the number of people both students and staff are exposed to throughout the school day.
Previously, CDC guidelines had recommended that students at all grade levels maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet to limit COVID-19 transmission.
“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” the director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said in a statement.
“These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” she said.
The updated Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Prevention is based on new data released Friday by the CDC and “are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask wearing,” according to the agency.
An analysis of 735 close contacts of 51 elementary school students and teachers with COVID-19 in Salt Lake City found that just 12 caught the virus. Of the 12, five were considered “school-associated,” for a secondary infection rate of less than 1%, the CDC said.
A separate analysis of schools in Florida last fall found that fewer than 1% of registered students were identified as having school-related COVID-19 and less than 11% of K-12 schools statewide reported outbreaks.
However, another study conducted by CDC researchers found that high school students are more likely to be exposed to the virus and spread it than younger children, which is why the social distancing recommendation remains 6 feet in areas with high COVID-19 transmission.
The CDC continues to recommend at least 6 feet of distance between adults in the school building and between adults and students.
In addition, 6-foot distance is recommended in common areas, such as school lobbies and auditoriums and when masks can’t be worn, such as when eating.
Six feet of distance also preferred during activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band practice, sports or exercise.
Ideally, these activities should be moved outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces whenever possible, the agency said.
Schools should be the “last settings to close because of COVID-19 and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” according to the CDC.
“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,” Walensky said.