Schools weigh whether to seat students closer together

FILE - In this March 2, 2021, file photo, science teacher Jennifer Becker, center, at the Sinaloa Middle School talks to her students who are distanced at their desks in Novato, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law Friday, March 5, with $6.6 billion in incentives to try to get more California schools to reopen. The response has been lukewarm support, as teachers resist and parents complain that it doesn't do enough to get kids in the classroom. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)
FILE - In this March 2, 2021, file photo, science teacher Jennifer Becker, center, at the Sinaloa Middle School talks to her students who are distanced at their desks in Novato, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law Friday, March 5, with $6.6 billion in incentives to try to get more California schools to reopen. The response has been lukewarm support, as teachers resist and parents complain that it doesn't do enough to get kids in the classroom. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BOSTON – New evidence that it may be safe for schools to seat students 3 feet apart — half of the previous recommended distance — could offer a way to return more of the nation's children to classrooms with limited space.

Even as more teachers receive vaccinations against COVID-19, social distancing guidelines have remained a major hurdle for districts across the U.S. Debate around the issue flared last week when a study suggested that masked students can be seated as close as 3 feet apart with no increased risk to them or teachers.

Published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the research looked at schools in Massachusetts, which has backed the 3-foot guideline for months. Illinois and Indiana are also allowing 3 feet of distance, and other states such as Oregon are considering doing the same.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now exploring the idea too. The agency's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said the 6-foot guideline is “among the biggest challenges” schools have faced in reopening.

The CDC included the larger spacing in its latest school guidelines, which were issued in February and concluded that schools can safely operate during the pandemic with masks, distancing and other precautions. It suggested 6 feet and said physical distancing “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

Other organizations have issued more relaxed guidelines, including the World Health Organization, which urges 1 meter in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to space desks “3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart.”

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, a national superintendents group, said he expects more states and schools to move to the 3-foot rule in coming weeks. With the larger guideline, he said, most schools only have space to bring back half of their students at a time. Moving to 3 feet could allow about 75% at a time, he said.

“There are districts that have been doing 3 feet for quite some time without experiencing any greater amount of infection,” he said.