Study raises questions about 6-feet of distancing

Study suggests that physical distancing rules could be revised to allow more students to return to in-class learning.

Nick Beare 3 minute read March 15, 2021

Masks, social distancing and hand washing is recommended to combat COVID-19. Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the globe, the guide to best practices is mostly settled among experts — mask-wearing, distancing and hand-washing. However, one area that has yet to be examined closely is how the virus behaves in a school environment. But according to recent research, when it comes to how much space should be between students, it appears that three-feet might be as effective as the mandated six.

The study, out of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, and published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, focused specifically on finding the optimal physical distance that would limit the spread. Researchers compared the rates of COVID-19 cases in students and staff in Massachusetts public schools among districts with universal mask mandates, but different physical distancing requirements. Some districts had mandated the ubiquitous six feet of physical distancing rule, while others had a three-foot rule.

The study found no substantial difference in the number of cases in districts with a three-foot rule versus those with a six-foot rule, suggesting different physical distancing policies could potentially be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.

“Prior studies have not directly compared the impact of different physical distancing policies among students attending in-person school,” said lead author Polly van den Berg, MD, a fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at BIDMC. “This research, which found no substantial difference in the number of cases among either students or staff in school districts that implemented a distancing policy of three versus six feet between students, is important because many school buildings have physical infrastructure that cannot accommodate six feet of distancing and bring all (or most) students back into the classroom.”

The researchers used data from 251 Massachusetts school districts, including 537,336 students and 99,390 staff who attended in-person instruction during a 16-week study period from September 2020 to January 2021.

The team then gathered a variety of information from local sources on the number of individual reported cases in the area, what the different control plans were in each district, and the number of infections reported to the state by the districts. They still found no material difference in the numbers whether staff and students were six feet apart or three feet apart.

“These data can be used to inform and update how infection control plans are implemented in school settings,” said corresponding author Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc, an infectious disease specialist at BIDMC and a clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System. “It is important to remember that distancing was just one of a number of interventions adopted in the districts included in our analysis. Across the districts included in our study, there was a near-universal masking mandate, thus our study addresses the question of the effectiveness of three versus six feet of distancing among students and staff who are wearing masks.”

The study also found that schools tended to have lower infection rates than their surrounding communities  confirming other data showing that schools are not main drivers of infection. However, the study did observe that case rates, particularly among staff, did correlate directly with the community rates.

“We hope that our findings can be used to update current recommendations about distancing policy, and ultimately, to help return more students to the classroom,” said Branch-Elliman.

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