Fully vaccinated students do not need to wear masks in classrooms this fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
The guidance, which goes beyond mask-wearing, is aimed at kindergartners through high school seniors, and is meant "to help keep kids in classrooms, as well as participating in any sports or extracurricular activities," said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who heads the CDC's Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force.
"Safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority," the CDC's guidance says, and encourages a return to the classroom even if not all prevention measures can be taken.
For example, the CDC guidance suggests students keep a physical distance of three feet from one another while in the classroom. But Sauber-Schatz said that if doing so is not possible, "that shouldn't keep any kids out of the classroom."
For fully vaccinated students and teachers, the change in guidance mirrors the CDC's previous guidance for fully vaccinated adults: no masks needed when indoors.
"Science completely supports that," said Mark Williams, dean of the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. "The vaccines are very effective in preventing infections, and if there is a breakthrough infection, it would not result in serious illness or hospitalization."
However, vaccines are only available for people ages 12 and up — leaving a large proportion of school-age children unprotected.
For unvaccinated students, the CDC continues to recommend "layers of protection," including masks, proper hand-washing and approaches such as weekly Covid-19 testing.
These additional layers of protection may be particularly important in areas of the country where the highly transmissible delta variant is spreading rapidly.
The agency's guidance is not a mandate. School districts and local governments have the authority to make their own decisions, including whether to implement universal mask-wearing or ditch the masks completely, even for unvaccinated students. Local officials will also be able to determine whether to require proof of vaccination for students old enough, and if so, how to accomplish that.
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Sauber-Schatz said that areas with high levels of community spread should consider adding mitigation measures, including masks for all, regardless of vaccination status.
But counties and school districts across the country are already starting to make their own decisions.
In Missouri, the Clay County Public Health Center has stated that masks will not be required for children when they return to school this fall.
Missouri has one of the highest rates of new Covid-19 cases in the country.
Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in the Kansas City, Missouri, are expressed frustration that the CDC guidance basically puts the responsibility of masking requirements on local school leaders.
"This isn't going to help the cause for the school districts that are trying to use the CDC as a marker for defending mask policies," said Burgert, who is also a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What's more, there is no specific formula that all school districts should use to determine which prevention strategies should be used.
Dr. Kristin Moffitt, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Children's Hospital, said that rates of new cases as well as vaccinations among those eligible for the shots should be considered.