116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Three feet of distance between students is sufficient for all elementary and most middle and high schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday, a change in its guidelines that lays the groundwork for more school reopenings nationwide and that could ease crowding concerns in some Iowa districts.
The announcement came as the CDC published new research that found limited coronavirus transmission in schools that require masks but not always 6 feet of distance, which had been the standard. That was true even in areas with high community spread of the virus.
Though many large districts in the nation are not fully back to classroom learning, schools in Iowa were required by a new state law to start offering families a 100-percent in-person learning option on Feb. 15.
Several Eastern Iowa district officials were concerned how they would be able to accommodate so many students in class all at once and still maintain social distance and staffing levels, but were optimistic that would become less of a worry as more staff got the COVID-19 vaccine.
Inoculations of teachers in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school districts should be complete - both doses - by about the end of the month.
The new CDC guidelines represent a significant reversal from guidance it issued last month that schools maintain 6 feet of distance between people. To achieve that, the CDC recommended then, schools in most of the country should hold off on fully reopening.
That put the CDC at odds with President Joe Biden, who has called on schools to fully reopen.
The February recommendation also came under fire from many experts as overly cautious, particularly as more evidence emerged that schools were safely operating with people closer to one another.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that new evidence prompted the change.
'These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based road map to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” she said in a statement.
Until recently, the debate over distancing in schools has been complicated by a lack of research directly comparing the risks of various distances between people. Most researchers say the research behind the 6-foot parameter is outdated, but they also agree that more distance is better than less.
But a growing number of scientists have called for shorter distances in schools, saying the risk must be weighed against growing examples of mental health and academic harms to students who have been learning remotely - or at least partly - for over a year.
'Look, 100 feet is safer than 6 feet, which is safer than 3 feet,” former CDC director Tom Frieden said during a Washington Post Live interview this week. 'Is 3 feet OK for most schools? Absolutely, if they mask, if they rapidly identify cases and isolate and quarantine.”
The change is opposed by the country's two large teachers unions. Ahead of the announcement, the unions argued there is scant research about the impact of closer contact in urban schools, where buildings are older and classrooms more crowded.
'We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
The CDC said Friday that most of the school-based infections have been among adults, or between students and staff. Therefore, it still recommended 6 feet of distance between students and their teachers and among teachers and staff. But the agency said the rules can be relaxed for student-to-student interactions.
For elementary schools, it said, 3 feet of distance among students is sufficient no matter what the infection rates are in the surrounding community. Young children are much less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19, and some research suggests they spread the coronavirus less efficiently than adolescents and teens.
The recommendations are more complex for middle and high schools and depend on which of four levels of community transmission are present in the surrounding area.
At the three lowest levels, the CDC says 3 feet of distance is sufficient for all schools.
But at the highest tier, the agency still recommends 6 feet unless students are held in cohorts to limit their movement from class to class.
After spiking into double digits last fall, Iowa's seven-day average positivity rate was down to 3.9 percent as of Friday.
The Washington Post and Bloomberg contributed.