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The CDC Says A Distance Of 3 Feet Between Students In A Classroom Setting Is Safe

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The CDC has some new guidance about schools. It says schools can now aim to space students 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet apart in classrooms. This change could open the door to full-time in-person learning for millions more students around the country. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has been following that news. And, Anya, can you give us a little more detail on this guidance?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Sure. So for many districts around the country, the 6-foot distance rule meant that they could only offer part-time or hybrid schedules to make more space in the classroom. Today that guidance has been changed to 3 feet between students in the classroom, as long as students keep following other COVID safety guidelines. Now, 6 feet is still the rule in lots of other situations - for example, between adults and students. In common areas, like auditoriums and cafeterias where there is no masks, and for the general public, the rest of us - in grocery stores - still have to be 6 feet apart.

CORNISH: What's the science behind some of this?

KAMENETZ: So in today's announcement, the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, cited several new studies from all over the country. There's one that was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, and this one looked at more than half-a-million students in Massachusetts. And it was sort of a natural experiment because districts were given a choice between distancing students either 6 feet or 3 feet apart. And with most districts requiring everybody to mask up, the study found there was no substantial difference in cases either way for students or for staff.

And by the way, as a little more evidence, the World Health Organization also had already recommended that schools distance children 1 meter apart - that's a little over 3 feet. And that's the rule in many schools around the world.

CORNISH: Here in the U.S., how big a deal is this change?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's not going to change anything overnight, but the pressure has been building to bring more students back in person full time, including from the president, and this change in the rules will definitely add to that pressure. Right now the 6-foot rule means about 3 in 10 students around the country are enrolled in districts where, if you want in-person, hybrid is your only option.

And just to paint you a picture of that, a hybrid schedule can have students attending in person as little as five days every three weeks. That's a lot of stops and starts, a lot of transitions. And when they're at home, these students, depending on the staffing of the school, may be joining in-person classes by video, or they may be completing packets of homework or online assignments without any live support at all.

CORNISH: At this point, what's known about how effective that kind of model is?

KAMENETZ: You know, there's differences of opinion, of course. But we do sometimes hear from parents and from teachers that hybrid models can be the worst of both worlds. For example, we recently polled parents, NPR and Ipsos, and found that those who had children enrolled in hybrid learning were the most likely, by double-digits margins, to feel worried that their child will be behind when the pandemic is over - so more worried than remote, more worried than in person, full time. The hybrid parents were also most likely, by a wide margin, to believe that the pandemic has disrupted their child's education.

And we also hear from some teachers that this is a very stressful way to teach. This is Rhonda Higgins. She teaches high school Spanish in Winston-Salem, N.C. And she's had to do something called concurrent teaching. That's where some students are at home, some are in the classroom.

RHONDA HIGGINS: You know, you're sitting in front of the computer, and you got kids sitting in the classroom, and, you know, it's a little odd.

KAMENETZ: It's odd, like, in a language classroom, she says, because she's dividing her attention between both groups of students. And this new guidance may mean fewer teachers have to do that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for your reporting.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.