Op-ed: Reduce distancing requirement to keep kids in school

The requirement that students be seated six feet apart in schools during the coronavirus pandemic—which has meant that many kids have been forced to stay home because of space constraints in classrooms—should be reduced to three feet, according to experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Six feet should be the default minimum for adults, but it’s past time we recognize that kids are different and the importance of schools is different, especially for the youngest learners. Three feet should be the default distance for schools,” wrote Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program, and Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy, in a November 12, 2020 Washington Post opinion piece.

Keeping kids out of school results in severe harms, the authors wrote, including loss in literacy, missed meals, virtual dropouts, and increasing inequity. In addition, “hybrid” models, in which students rotate days at school, may actually increase the risk of coronavirus spread because kids may be spending time with a wider network of contacts on their nonschool days.

The authors noted that the six-foot distance requirement has a weak scientific basis; that recent research suggests three feet of distance reduces risk significantly as long as community spread is low; and that mask wearing, as well as proper levels of filtration and ventilation in classrooms, can go a long way toward reducing viral spread.

Kids are much less likely than adults to catch the coronavirus, and their risk of dying from it is extremely low, wrote Allen and Bleich. And teachers can protect themselves by maintaining six feet of distance from students as much as possible and wearing good-quality masks.

“The risks from covid-19 in schools are manageable,” the authors wrote. “The risks to kids being out of school, however, are escalating rapidly. For the sake of our children, it’s time for more scientifically justified distancing guidelines in the classroom.”

Read the Washington Post op-ed: Why three feet of social distancing should be enough in schools