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Van den Berg P, Schechter-Perkins EM, Jack RS, Epshtein I, Nelson R, Oster E, Branch-Elliman W. 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. Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Mar 10:ciab230. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciab230. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33704422.

Background: National and international guidelines differ about the optimal physical distancing between students for prevention of SARS-CoV-2 transmission; studies directly comparing the impact of ≥3 versus ≥6 feet of physical distancing policies in school settings are lacking. Thus, our objective was to compare incident cases of SARS-CoV-2 in students and staff in Massachusetts public schools among districts with different physical distancing requirements. State guidance mandates masking for all school staff and for students in grades 2 and higher; the majority of districts required universal masking.

Methods: Community incidence rates of SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-2 cases among students in grades K-12 and staff participating in-person learning, and district infection control plans were linked. Incidence rate ratios (IRR) for students and staff members in districts with ≥3 versus ≥6 feet of physical distancing were estimated using log-binomial regression; models adjusted for community incidence are also reported.

Results: Among 251 eligible school districts, 537,336 students and 99,390 staff attended in-person instruction during the 16-week study period, representing 6,400,175 student learning weeks and 1,342,574 staff learning weeks. Student case rates were similar in the 242 districts with ≥3 feet versus ≥6 feet of physical distancing between students (IRR, 0.891, 95% CI, 0.594-1.335); results were similar after adjusting for community incidence (adjusted IRR, 0.904, 95% CI, 0.616-1.325). Cases among school staff in districts with ≥3 feet versus ≥6 feet of physical distancing were also similar (IRR, 1.015, 95% CI, 0.754-1.365).

Conclusions: Lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.

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