More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing has become the norm and an important tool, along with masking, in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
In Canada, the public health recommendation is to keep a distance of at least two metres (6.6 feet) from others.
This is different from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines of six feet (1.8 metres) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one metre (3.3 feet).
On Friday, the CDC updated its guidelines on social distancing in schools, saying students can now sit three feet — down from six feet — apart in classrooms.
The change comes after a peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Disease earlier this month found similar case rates in public schools across the state of Massachusetts when students and staff maintained a distance of three feet and six feet.
“We did not find a higher rate of COVID-19 among students or staff in those districts that mandated only three feet of distance between the students,” said Elissa Perkins, study co-author and director of emergency medicine infectious disease management at Boston University.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is anticipating its COVID-19 guidance for schools for kindergarten to Grade 12 will be updated in early summer 2021 based on the latest information on transmission and epidemiology across Canada, a spokesperson for the agency told Global News on Monday.
“Canada’s approach may be different from that of other countries, and approaches across Canada will be different, tailored to the unique challenges and context of the disease in each province and territory,” Anna Madison, PHAC spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
Since January, several provinces in Canada have resumed in-person learning in classrooms.
Experts say the shorter distance can prove to be beneficial in classroom settings here as well, but cautioned against moving everything to three feet amid the spread of more transmissible variants.
“In a school setting, it might allow for denser classroom populations, but it would require strictly maintaining all the other measures,” said Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Earl Rubin, division director of pediatric infectious diseases at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), said the three feet rule would enable an easier organization of students and teachers for in-person learning to carry on.
“The permissiveness of the schools to allow only three feet will allow for this set-up to continue and for the teachers and the parents to feel a little bit more secure,” he told Global News.
However, “three or six feet, everyone should still be wearing a mask,” Rubin added.
The Toronto Public Health (TPH) is responsible for making guidelines for schools and daycare centers across the city.
In a statement to Global News, TPH spokesperson and associate medical officer of health Vinita Dubey said the agency will continue to monitor the local situation, latest scientific evidence and provincial and federal partners’ recommendations before changing their own guidance.
The CDC cited several U.S.-based and international studies that influenced its decision.
“The preponderance of the available evidence from U.S. schools indicates that even when students were placed less than six feet apart in classrooms, there was limited SARS-CoV-2 transmission when other layered prevention strategies were consistently maintained — notably, masking and student cohorts,” it said in its scientific brief on March 19.
“However, greater physical distancing (at least six feet) should be prioritized whenever masks cannot be used (for example, while eating),” CDC stated.
Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed study published in the American Institute of Physics last month studied the pandemic response in New York City and found that the school closure policy had little to no impact on the total number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
In comparison, physical distancing for the entire population in public facilities was more effective, reducing 47 per cent of infections and 51 per cent of deaths related to COVID-19.
With the spread of highly contagious new variants, there are concerns Canada is on the cusp of a third wave of COVID-19.
Experts say more evidence in support of the lesser distance is needed to change the guidelines for the wider population.
“Schools differ from the community at large in a lot of really important ways. They are much more controlled, regulated environments … with a bundle of mitigation measures in place, including symptom screens, contact tracing and quarantine protocols, ventilation upgrades, hand hygiene requirements and mask requirements,” said Perkins.
“So I would be very cautious about advancing our findings beyond the school setting,” she added.
Rubin said the circulation of variants also needs to be considered before changing any guidance.
“We are still learning about the variants, but what we do seem to know is that the variants are more easily communicable.”
Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, said it was “a bit premature” to make the switch as not every place has similar ventilation.
However, “it is something to look at for broader society moving forward,” he told Global News.
— With files from Global News’ Linda Boyle