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CDC relaxes social distancing guidelines for schools

In new guidelines released Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its social distancing requirements for students in school, stating they could safely sit three feet apart — rather than six — without barriers if they are wearing masks. The change could mean more students across the country will return to in-person learning this spring. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance for schools today, paving the way for more students to return to the classroom.

    The CDC said that students could safely sit three feet apart without barriers, rather than six feet, if they are wearing masks. It recommended keeping students six feet apart in common areas like the gym or lunchroom. And they say teachers should keep a six-foot distance.

    William Brangham joins me now with more on all of this.

    So, hello, William.

    This is a big announcement from the CDC, changing the guidance from six to three feet. Why did they say this is safe to do?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, you are absolutely right, Judy. This is big guidance. And six feet has been the mantra we have heard this entire pandemic.

    The CDC changed its guidance, they argue, because of the emerging science about how people get infected, how kids get infected and how best to protect against those infections. The first piece of evidence that a lot of us look at is that schools in Europe have largely been reopened, and they have not become huge hot spots for transmission.

    So, that is one piece of evidence. But a very specific key piece of evidence that the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, cited today was a study that came out of Massachusetts. This took two different cohorts of people. It had I think it was a half-a-million students, something like 100,000 staffers, and it divided them up, so that some of the schools did three -feet distance, some of the schools did six-foot difference, and that there was no distinction in the two groups in infection rates.

    So, it didn't matter whether the kids were six feet apart or three feet apart. And it also didn't matter whether the virus was particularly rampant in that local community. The infection rates were not the same.

    So, that was a key piece of evidence that they pointed to. The important thing to remember in all of that in this Massachusetts study is that mask mandates were universal. So, the CDC is saying, if you can guarantee that grownups and students wear masks, you can put them closer together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we know masks are important. And now they changed the distance, as we say, from six to three, but we also know there is more involved to keeping children safe.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    Reducing risk for infection, there is no magic number. Six feet is not magic. Three feet is not some magic number now. It is about reducing the risk in as many ways as you possibly can. One of the things that really has become important is ventilation. And that is clearing the air out where an infected person might be.

    Earlier today, we spoke with Linsey Marr. She is a professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. And she studies how viruses move through air. And here is what she had to say.

  • Linsey Marr:

    If we move to three feet, ventilation and filtration become even more important. At three feet, you're able to put more people in the classroom. There's a greater chance that there's someone who might be sick in there who is releasing virus into the air.

    And then it becomes incredibly important to remove that, which you can do either through good ventilation or, if you can't — it's hard to achieve that, then adding filtration by adding something like a portable air cleaner in the room.

  • William Brangham:

    Just to echo what she is saying there, if there is a person who is infected inside a room and breathing that virus out, this is an airborne virus. That could be breathed in by others. This is why filtration is so key.

    Open a window, open a door, or, in the case of schools, build better ventilation systems. But that is a costly, expensive and not easy thing to do. But that is part of the challenge for schools going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, we know there are a number of groups watching all of this very closely, school administrators, teachers and, of course, parents. Everybody wants to get the schools open safely.

    How are they reacting to this news?

  • William Brangham:

    You are absolutely right, Judy.

    This has been an enormous topic of conversation among school administrators and all of the groups that you cited. And the reaction today was somewhat mixed. We did hear from some superintendents in places like Texas and in Florida who believe this guidance, they like the CDC's evidence that they are citing, and they hope that this is a further encouragement to safely reopening schools.

    Others were a little bit more circumspect. Randi Weingarten, the head of the big teachers union in the United States, had a sort of wait-and-see approach. They want to look at the evidence a little more closely. Same thing with Becky Pringle, who is the head of the National Education Association.

    She said that this is going to be particularly hard to do, this new distancing guidance, for urban schools and for schools generally who are still trying to come up with all of these COVID protocols at once, of masking, cleaning, staff training, ventilation, et cetera.

    They were also a little bit more circumspect about the evidence that has been cited. And so they want further clarification from the CDC as to why you are really certain that this is a good idea.

    But, in general, this is hope that this is a better piece of identified and that schools and teachers and parents can all get what we all desperately want, which is to open schools again and get kids back in safely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we will continue to watch to see what the school systems do across the country.

    William Brangham, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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