(CNN/CBS13) -- In light of new data, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday relaxed its physical distancing guidelines for children in schools to recommend most students maintain at least 3 feet of distance. It had previously said schools should try to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between children.
The agency released three new studies on Friday that it says support distancing of 3 feet between students, so long as everyone is wearing a mask and other prevention measures are in place. Another study recently published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found there was no difference in Covid-19 rates between Massachusetts schools that mandated 3 feet of physical distance compared with 6 feet.
But this only works if schools are taking other steps, too, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House Covid-19 briefing on Friday.
"These include universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning to maintain healthy facilities and diagnostic testing with rapid and efficient contact tracing in combination with isolation in quarantine and in collaboration with local health departments," Walensky said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early March a deal aimed at returning public school students to classrooms after what has been a year of distance learning.
School districts in California are locally controlled, meaning the state can't force them to resume in-person instruction. But it can incentivize them. The plan provides $6.6 billion collectively for districts.
Districts that choose to resume in-person instruction by March 31 can tap into $2 billion in extra funding. The dollar amount drops the longer a district waits to offer students a return to the classroom.
The other $4.6 billion goes to expanded educational services and other programs to support kids' well-being and mitigate learning loss. The money could be used to extend the school year or fund summer school programs. Districts could also tap this money to keep supporting distance learning, as most schools won't have the space to bring all students back to class full-time.
Experts said the CDC's new guidlines may allow more schools to open -- or open to more students.
But teachers' unions said they wanted to see more information about the science behind the decision, and expressed concern about whether some schools could implement the safety measures necessary.
What's in the CDC guidance
As always, masks are key. At times when it's not possible to accommodate masks, as when eating, CDC says 6 feet of distance should be maintained.
In the new guidance, CDC recommends keeping students and teachers in distinct groups, or cohorts, throughout the day and maintaining 6 feet of distance between those groups, when possible. In middle schools and high schools where community transmission is high, CDC advises students to stay 6 feet apart, if cohorting is not possible.
CDC also recommends 6 feet of distance in common areas, such as lobbies and auditoriums, and during activities like singing, shouting, band or sport practices. They say it's better to move those kinds of activities, where increased exhalation occurs, outdoors or to well-ventilated spaces.
In classrooms, CDC says layout changes, like removing nonessential furniture and facing desks in the same direction, can help maximize distance between students. On school buses, the agency recommends seating students one child per row, skipping rows and opening windows to increase ventilation.
When it comes to adults, including teachers and staff, the agency says it's better to stick to 6 feet of distance, both with other adults and with children.
"Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools," the agency notes.
CDC advises limiting interaction among teachers and staff during meetings and breaks.
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