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Teachers join front-line workers concerned over new CDC mask guidance

The sudden easing of requirements for some, but not all, is stressing an "exhausted and sometimes scapegoated workforce," according to a letter obtained by NBC News.
Students attend an assembly at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., on April 13, 2021.
Students at an assembly at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., on April 13.Ben Hasty / Reading Eagle via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The country's second largest teachers union says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent change in masking guidance is stressing an "exhausted and sometimes scapegoated workforce," with some states already banning masks in schools, according to a letter obtained by NBC News.

"With the school year ending within weeks, we had hoped to have the time this summer to prepare and incorporate any new COVID-19 guidance into our back-to-school plans," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in the letter to the CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

"Unfortunately, certain states rushed to act, such as Texas, which totally eliminated its mask mandates, regardless of age, even though vaccines are yet to be approved for those under the age of 12 and fewer than 50 percent of the U.S. population are fully vaccinated," said Weingarten, who represents 1.7 million members.

Iowa also enacted a law prohibiting K-12 schools from mandating masks and barring cities and counties from mandating masks in businesses. Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that she is "proud to be a governor of a state that values personal responsibility and individual liberties."

The CDC changed its guidance about masks last week, saying fully vaccinated people no longer need them in most places, leading a cascade of states to change their rules.

The CDC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walensky has said the CDC will issue new guidelines for schools, but it's unclear when that will happen. She has stressed that "evolving science" drove the decision and that the CDC wanted to share the science with Americans as quickly as possible.

The sudden change caught some stakeholders, including unions representing front-line workers, off guard. It has also led to confusion, some of it over how to verify that people are fully vaccinated, and criticism from some scientists that it's premature to drop masking policies with a significant percentage of people in the U.S. still unvaccinated.

The country's largest union of registered nurses called on the CDC to reverse its guidance, saying it isn't in the best interest of public health.

Recent studies have shown that immunocompromised people don't generate as strong an immune response to the vaccines, putting them at risk, especially because most children aren't vaccinated. It's unreasonable to expect millions of people who resisted wearing masks in the first place to be forthright and to continue to wear them regardless of their vaccination status, critics say.

The change leaves many questions unanswered in schools, in particular, Weingarten said, including whether the CDC is continuing to make masking a priority within all primary schools, along with 3 feet of social distancing. The union also wants to know what strategies and protocols the agency recommends to verify students' vaccination status.

Other questions include whether children under 12, who aren't yet eligible to be vaccinated, should remain masked both indoors and outdoors, the letter says, and whether the CDC will give guidance about how to blend classrooms of students who claim to be vaccinated with children who are ineligible for the vaccines for health or age reasons.