Study: Little to no difference in school COVID rates between 3, 6 feet of distance

BOSTON — A new study comparing COVID-19 rates in Massachusetts schools between three and six feet of distance in classrooms found little to no difference in the numbers, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley announced at a board meeting Friday.

Making his case for fully reopening schools starting with elementary students early next month, Riley cited the study he said will soon be published in the Lancet medical journal.

Most schools have students’ desks spaced six feet apart for in-person learning, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a groundbreaking study,” Riley said, displaying a chart that demonstrated a similar trend between three and six feet of distance. “What they found was there was not a higher rate of cases of COVID-19 in either students nor staff in districts that had students spaced more closely.”

Scientists and medical doctors involved in the study analyzed infectious control plans and COVID-19 case numbers in 243 school districts across the state between Sept. 30 and Jan. 7, Riley said. Of those districts, 194 had students spaced at a minimum of six feet, and 49 had three feet of distance between desks.

Cutting that distance in half and allowing more kids in the classroom makes a full return to school more physically possible, particularly in older and smaller buildings.

Joseph Allen, director of Harvard’s University’s Healthy Buildings program, told Boston 25 News last month the science supports a return to the classroom with three feet of spacing.

“The distancing question taken in context of universalmasking and better ventilation and filtration in schools, we don’t think six-foot distancing make sense,” Allen said. “And it shouldn’t be the reason we’re keeping kids out of school, precisely because the costs of keeping kids out of school are so severe.”

But the Massachusetts Teachers Association does not believe three feet of distance is safe enough.

“We’re entering a different phase of the pandemic because of the new variant,” MTA President Merrie Najimy said. “So, now is not the time to be less stringent about guidelines. It’s important to be even more stringent, so we can keep people safe.”

The MTA blasted Riley’s overall plan Friday, saying accelerating the reopening of schools will add stress and be “extremely chaotic.”

But Riley insists reopening is safe. Whether it is three feet or six, transmission in schools, he said, has been minimal.

“Researchers also found that for both students and staff the case rate per 100,000 was lower in schools than it was in the community,” Riley said. “And by decreasing space between students to three feet from six feet, schools can continue to be safe and not cause increasing rates of COVID-19.”

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