Six feet versus three feet: Local scientists help shape CDC guidance on safe school social distancing

As your child's school works to return students to classrooms full-time, there's a new debate over social distancing: Should kids be six-feet apart or three-feet apart? Many local districts are at odds over which kids to send back for in-person learning and how far apart to keep them.

On Wednesday, new hope appeared on the horizon for parents of middle and high school students desperate to get their kids back in the classroom daily. The Centers for Disease Control suggested it may soon change its recommendation that schools keep students six feet apart by reducing social distance to three feet. It removes a barrier to reopening for some schools. And, the change couldn't come sooner for some parents in Wake County.

One mom told the Wake school board, Tuesday, "The kids have had enough. They're ready. They need to go back." Another mother exclaimed, "Imagine what it is like to start high school online in your bedroom!"

Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman told ABC 11, current data suggests three feet social distance in schools, along with strict rules on face masks, can work safely for middle and high schoolers - who are currently limited to a mix of online and in-person learning.

"With strict adherence to masking, I believe that can be done safely," said Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke and co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative, a partnership between scientists and schools to equip education leaders with the COVID-19 info they need to make policy decisions.

The collaborative has also been supplying the CDC with emerging research from our state and others, suggesting three feet is sufficient. But as of Wednesday, the six-foot recommendation remains in place.

"It's hard to predict (when the guidance will change)," Zimmerman said. "We did talk to the CDC as recently as yesterday. And they were actively reviewing all of that information. I'm hopeful it'll come in the next few weeks. But it's really hard to predict."

Impatience is growing on Capitol Hill over the distancing guidelines.

"We need swift action from the CDC and I don't think we need to wait for more study," said Washington Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers in a pointed line of questioning toward CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Wednesday.

As Rogers continued to press Walensky, the CDC director told lawmakers that new guidance on distancing was coming soon.

"It became very clear that six feet was among the things keeping schools closed. And in that context, science evolved," Walensky said. "We are looking to update our guidance."

The state's largest school system may not wait for the updated CDC guidance. The Wake school board is set to vote next Monday on Superintendent Cathy Moore's recommendation to return middle and high school students to daily in-person learning in April -- a move now allowed under the newly-approved senate bill 220 which strikes a state provision requiring six feet social distance at secondary schools.
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