Physical Distancing: 3 Feet vs 6 Feet

The news is buzzing with news of a new research study showing that “3 feet of social distancing is safe in schools”, which of course many people are adjusting to “3 feet of social distancing means I can’t get COVID”. Let’s talk about that.

The news is buzzing with news of a new research study showing that “3 feet of social distancing is safe in schools”, which of course many people are adjusting to “3 feet of social distancing means I can’t get COVID”. Let’s talk about that.

You can find the actual study here.

To really understand what this study means, we need to understand exactly what the study was actually about.

A Brief Overview

The data generally support the results. They found no statistically significant difference between school districts with 3-foot policies and 6-foot policies. They even managed to produce one of those miraculous graphs that really doesn’t need statistics to be interpreted!

Limitations of the Study

1. Policy vs Behavior

This presents a significant concern. If the schools who had 6-foot policies on paper didn’t enact them in real life, then it would be unsurprising to find no differences between them. The authors of the new physical distancing study do recognize that the possibility of differences between policy implementation and reality might be significant, but strangely they only seem to consider it in the opposite direction — that perhaps schools that allowed 3 feet were able to attain greater distance.

2. Reported vs Actual Cases

Practically speaking, because this source of error is likely evenly distributed between the two policy conditions (though one might hope a school with 3-foot distancing would be even more vigilant), it is unlikely that this contributes significantly to the results.

3. Community Spread vs School Spread

In the 3-foot vs 6-foot study, researchers found a strong correlation between community spread and cases in students and staff, which is to be expected.

The authors did statistically control for community spread, and found that it didn’t make a significant difference. Again, this is not surprising, as community spread is likely to impact schools similarly.

4. Safe vs Safer

As a result, the physical distancing study focuses on whether there’s a difference in risk of infection (as reflected in incidence) between the two conditions — in essence seeing if one is safer than the other rather than declaring one or the other “safe”. This is a reasonable approach for a research paper to take.

Unfortunately, in media reporting has taken “safer” and translated it to “safe”. This can be misleading. As we’ve seen with previously with state regulations around indoor dining making something “safer” or meeting minimum safety requirements does not eliminate all risk, and if the risk assessor places greater value on economic or symbolic benefits than on the health risks then significantly risky activities may be endorsed as “safe”.

When considering relative safety, we need to take a broad lens. As this and other data suggest, the relative incidence of COVID in school children is lower than for adults, and their symptoms tend to be more mild. This is good news for them! But opening schools also means considering the risk for adults working in those settings (which are notably greater) and the resources we provide them to offset those risks. As the recent fight over forcing teachers to return to classrooms without vaccination shows, this is a real issue; unfortunately we still often fail to consider other contacts like janitorial staff, bus drivers, administrative staff, and paraprofessionals who may have significant contact with students while schools open but may not have similar health benefits to the teachers and higher administrators who are in the current media focus.

Summary & Conclusion

In short, this is promising research, but it leaves many questions unanswered. As discussed in the summer, there are differing opinions about how much distancing is necessary, but you’ll never err by having too much distancing to reduce your risk.

As always, I am not trained in epidemiology, and defer to recognized experts in the field on all issues. These analyses and commentary are solely designed to help lay persons approach the publicly available data and larger public health conversations.

Stay Home. Mind Your Distance. Wear a Mask.