CDC Relaxes Physical Distancing Rules in Schools

Students should remain at least 3 feet apart in the classroom. Learn why guidance has changed.

students in masks in classroom

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Updated on March 19, 2021

Health officials have relaxed physical distancing rules for children and teens in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance, advising that students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet inside the classroom—not 6 feet as previously recommended.

This move paves the way for a return to in-person learning at schools across the country, which have been forced to keep many students at home either part- or full-time to accommodate the greater space requirements of the more stringent distancing rule.

The updated guidelines are welcome news to parents who’ve been juggling at-home and hybrid learning for the better part of a year as well as students who’ve struggled academically and emotionally with a virtual learning environment.

What has changed—and what hasn’t
The CDC now says most students can sit at least 3 feet apart—as long as they are wearing masks. 

This recommendation applies to students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade regardless of COVID-19 transmission rates in their area but only if schools can keep students in distinct groups or cohorts. In areas where transmission rates are high, the CDC says middle and high school students should remain 6 feet apart if they are not in these assigned groups.

In order to minimize risks at this more lenient physical distancing requirement, the CDC also urges schools to remove all unnecessary furniture to utilize all classroom space to still create as much distance as possible between students.

Other classroom recommendations include:

  • Facing all student desks in the same direction whenever possible
  • Limiting all nonessential adult meetings and interactions
  • Restricting visitors to schools, including volunteers or people from external groups, particularly those from outside the local area
  • Enforcing mask requirements and physical distance from all school visitors

Adults are excluded from the relaxed rule. Physical distancing of at least 6 feet is still required between teachers and school staff as well as teachers and students. Health officials point out that coronavirus spread is more common among adults in schools than among students as well as between students and their teachers.

During times when masks are removed, including during lunch, certain physical activities or while singing or playing instruments, physical distancing between students must still be a minimum of 6 feet. The CDC also recommends moving these activities outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces.

Why the CDC changed its recommendation
Since the pandemic began, doctors, scientists and health officials have had to make the best decisions possible based on the information available to them. Remember, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a newly identified virus. The guidance on how to prevent and manage the disease is still evolving. As more time passes, scientists and health experts have more data to analyze.

The revised CDC guidelines come on the heels of a March 10 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, which included 537,336 students and 99,390 staff who attended school in-person for a total of 16 weeks. The researchers found that student COVID case rates in school districts with a distancing rule of at least 3 feet were similar to case rates in school districts that enforced a distancing rule of at least 6 feet. This was true even after taking community spread in these areas into account.   

The study concluded that schools could safely reopen as long as kids were at least 3 feet apart and other preventative measures, such as wearing masks, were also enforced.

The decision to relax distancing guidelines in schools also reflects the opinions of the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics—both of which have expressed support for 3-feet physical distancing.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Prevention.” Mar 19, 2021.
Polly van den Berg, MD, Elissa M Schechter-Perkins, MD, MPH, Rebecca S Jack, et al. Effectiveness of three versus six feet of physical distancing for controlling spread of COVID-19 among primary and secondary students and staff: A retrospective, state-wide cohort study, Clinical Infectious Diseases, 2021.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools.” Jan 5, 2021.

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