Responding to a new study by Massachusetts researchers, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, on Sunday said that three feet of social distancing may “indeed” be enough to safely reopen schools and said new guidance on the issue should be coming “soon” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Fauci said that the CDC is “very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like three feet are okay under certain circumstances,” but he stopped short of issuing such guidance himself.
Instead, Fauci said he speaks to the CDC “every single day,” and that the agency is aware of the data and will be acting on it, adding that new guidelines to reopen schools will come from the CDC “within a reasonable period of time.”
The study prompting Fauci’s response came from researchers at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who published a report Wednesday concluding that lowering social-distancing policies in school settings from the longstanding six-feet guidance can be done without negatively impacting student or staff safety if masks are mandated.
The study looked at 251 school districts, nearly 540,000 students and 100,000 staff–all who attended in-person instruction during a 16-week period–and found no significant difference in the number of Covid-19 cases reported under three feet of social distancing, as opposed to six feet.
The CDC published guidelines for reopening schools in late February, advising that physical distancing of at least six feet should be maximized whenever possible, but Fauci gave no specific timeline for any new guidance.
President Joe Biden released a five-step plan to reopen schools on Friday, tasking the CDC and other federal agencies “with establishing basic, objective criteria to guide state, tribal, and local officials in deciding if and how reopening can be managed safely in their communities.”
Though the United States has long stood by its guidelines calling for six feet of social distancing to curb the spread of Covid-19, other health organizations have said shorter distancing is acceptable. Since early January, for example, the World Health Organization has said at least one meter of social distancing (roughly three feet) is enough to help prevent transmission. As vaccination rates start to ramp up and new data on distancing accumulates, some U.S. school districts have already started to cut their required distancing from six feet to three feet despite the lack of national guidance.
If vaccination continues to go as planned, Fauci said the Fourth of July weekend seems “realistic” for a considerable degree of normality, but on NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, he also warned state leaders against eliminating public health measures too soon.