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Austin-area schools to drop social distancing recommendation to 3 feet instead of 6 feet

According to health officials, Stage 5 social distancing recommendations will stay at six feet, while other stages will be updated to the CDC's three-feet guidance.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Austin Public Health (APH) is expected to drop its social distancing recommendations from six feet to three feet, following in line with updated CDC guidance. APH Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said this update would be provided to schools "in the next week or so."

In Tuesday's joint meeting between APH, City and County leaders, Escott said the distancing recommendation of six feet would remain in Stage 5 COVID-19 risk-based guidelines, but added the recommendations for other Stages would be updated to three feet. 

Austin is currently in Stage 3 COVID-19 risk-based guidelines under the recommendation of APH.

"Some folks have asked, 'Well, does that mean three feet of distancing is OK in every setting,' and the answer is no," Escott said. "The study that was done, was done in a school situation. And schools are a very different setting. We think about classrooms ... we've got desks facing in the same direction. We've got protocols in place. That's a much different situation than being face-to-face where individuals are more likely to be exposed rather than all facing in the same direction."

In the Austin area, the positivity rates among school-aged children were as follows: 

  • High school: 5.4%
  • Middle school: 7.0%
  • Elementary school: 4.3%
  • Preschool: 3.3%

WATCH: Coronavirus in Austin: City and Travis County leaders get update on COVID, vaccine

RELATED: CDC revises school distancing guidelines for COVID prevention

The new CDC guidance was announced in light of a recent study in Massachusetts that looked at infections of students and staff members in schools that used the three-foot standard and those that used the six-foot one. It found no significant difference in infection rates.

Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC's community interventions task force, said other research has also been influential, including two studies the CDC released Friday.

One was a study in Utah that found low coronavirus transmission rates among students who did a good job wearing masks and whose desks were only three feet apart. The other study, done in Missouri, pointed to a similar conclusion, Massetti said.

APH's announcement Tuesday also comes amid a general downward trend of COVID-19 data. The City of Austin released new guidelines Friday to enable events to begin reopening safely. The "Bringing Events Back: Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Safety Guide for Venues & Special Events" includes recommendations for indoor venues as well as updated permit requirements for some outdoor events. To read the plan, click here.

The updated APH guidance also comes on the same day the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced it would expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all Texans, starting March 29.  

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