Friday morning’s much-anticipated shift in the federal government’s approach to social distancing in schools comes in response to a spate of new research, much of it showing that keeping students six feet apart is no more effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 than maintaining a distance of three feet. In a statement accompanying the new advisory, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said that the agency “is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges.”

Some have argued since the February release of the CDC’s original reopening guidelines that the six-foot rule was based on old and unsupported research claims, and would pose a major roadblock to in-person instruction given space constraints in schools. But it is likely that no empirical argument was more influential in changing the CDC’s position than a paper accepted for publication in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases last week.

Examining coronavirus spread in over 250 Massachusetts school districts over 16 weeks during the fall and winter, the study found no significant difference in COVID-19 cases between districts that required three feet of distancing versus six feet. Not only were case rates among students and staff members similar in both kinds of districts, they were also lower than in the surrounding communities.

Co-author Richard Nelson, a health economist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said in an email that the newly updated recommendations were “a good example of the scientific and policymaking communities being partners in forging the best path through this unique public health crisis.”

“It is great that our study could provide some new insights into how specific amounts of physical distancing might impact infection rates in school settings,” Nelson wrote. “But it is also heartening that policymakers are willing to modify guidance when new evidence comes to light.”

Read the full article about school social distancing by Kevin Mahnken at The 74.