CDC changes school guidance, allowing desks to be closer

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FILE - In this March 18, 2021, file photo, students in teacher Christopher Duggan's science class clean their work areas at the end of class at Windsor Locks High School in Windsor Locks, Conn. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its social distancing guidelines for schools Friday, March 19, saying students can now sit 3 feet apart in classrooms. The new guidelines also remove recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

NEW YORK – Students can safely sit just 3 feet apart in the classroom as long as they wear masks but should be kept the usual 6 feet away from one another at sporting events, assemblies, lunch or chorus practice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in relaxing its COVID-19 guidelines.

The revised recommendations represent a turn away from the 6-foot standard that has sharply limited how many students some schools can accommodate. Some places have had to remove desks, stagger schedules and take other steps to keep children apart.

Three feet “gives school districts greater flexibility to have more students in for a prolonged period of time,” said Kevin Quinn, director of maintenance and facilities at Mundelein High School in suburban Chicago.

In recent months, schools in some states have been disregarding the CDC guidelines, using 3 feet as their standard. Studies of what happened in some of them helped sway the agency, said Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force.

“We don’t really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread,” she said. Also, younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus and don't seem to spread it as much as adults do, and “that allows us that confidence that that 3 feet of physical distance is safe.”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the revised recommendations are a “roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.” She said in-person schooling gives students not only “the education they need to succeed” but access to crucial social and mental health services.

The new guidance:

— Removes recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks. “We don't have a lot of evidence of their effectiveness” in preventing transmission, Massetti said.