The distance between students within the classroom is not associated with the reductions in COVID-19 cases among students or staff, a recent US-based study has claimed.
The study compared incident cases of coronavirus among students and staff throughout a select group of Massachusetts public schools, each of which had differing social distancing requirements but all remained strict on masking mandates for grades two and above, as per state guidance; the majority of school districts had required universal masking.
The study claims that adhering to the accepted social distancing requirement of six feet between students, versus three feet, has no bearing on the R reproduction number, related to the number of cases within the school, so long as mitigation measures such as universal masking are implemented.
"Our finding of no significant difference in student or staff case rates between schools with ≥3 versus ≥6 feet of distancing with a large sample size suggests that the lower physical distancing recommendation can be adopted in school settings without negatively impacting safety," the study authors said in their findings.
The researchers pulled data from 251 eligible school districts serving students in grades K-12 in Massachusetts, where 537,336 students and 99,390 staff attended in-person five days a week throughout the sixteen week school quarter.
Student cases were reported to be similar among the clear majority of districts (242 out of 251), with each adhering to different social distancing standards, being ≥3 feet versus ≥6 feet. The same went for school staff among them, where the range of social distancing requirements had remained undetermined.
It is also noted that many of the schools with stricter social distancing requirements had most likely shut their doors more often, whereas this research claims those measures were unfounded or defined poorly, and that schools could have continued to operate as they did in other districts without negatively impacting students and staff.
The notion that six feet of physical distance between students is required to limit exposure has led to schools being unable to fully open for in-person learning, if at all, due to the limitations of the school infrastructure.
The study authors said that while they "were not able to examine how lower distancing policies may have impacted school closures, it is possible that districts with lower distancing requirements closed more frequently, or required more quarantines, due to how SARS-CoV-2 exposures are defined."
The recommendation by the researchers is that schools can relax physical distancing requirements without negatively impacting the safety of students or staff, so long as the schools adhere to masking mandates.
"Three feet of physical distancing is more easily achieved in most school districts, including public ones, and thus, relaxing distancing requirements would likely have the impact of increasing the number of students who are able to benefit from additional in-person learning," the authors noted in their findings.
"Our data also suggest that intermediate distances (4 or 5 feet) can also be adopted without negatively impacting safety; adoption of intermediate distancing policies might be leveraged as a step-wise approach to return more students to the classroom," they wrote.
"We were not able to fully exclude a small benefit of greater physical distancing requirements among student cases. However, due to our large sample size, we can conclude that more restrictive physical distancing policies would not have substantial impact on preventing cases in students attending in-person schooling," the study authors said.