Student Well-Being

Unvaccinated Students, Adults Should Continue Wearing Masks in Schools, CDC Says

By Evie Blad — July 09, 2021 8 min read
School bus picking up elementary student wearing surgical mask boarding at bus stop.
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Updated.

Students, educators, and staff should continue wearing masks at school if they are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in new guidance released Friday, which also put a priority on getting schools reopened for in-person instruction.

Students should also maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance in classrooms, the agency said in a document meant to inform precautions for the 2021-22 school year, and there may be some situations where universal masking requirements are still appropriate.

Schools should maintain “layered mitigation strategies,” like handwashing, regular testing, contact tracing to identify threats of exposure to the virus, and cancelling certain extracurricular activities in high-risk areas, the agency said.

The new federal recommendations are less prescriptive than previous versions, and they offer schools latitude to tailor precautions, guided by virus rates in their communities and other local concerns. They come as several states with low vaccination rates see surging rates of the Delta variant, which is more rapidly transmitted than previous strains of COVID-19.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the recommendations say. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

It may be too late for the CDC guidance to change schools’ plans for the 2021-22 school year. Many states and districts have already set procedures.

School starts in August in central states like Arkansas and Missouri, which are both struggling to slow the spread of the Delta variant. Governors and state lawmakers in several states have already prohibited schools from requiring masks in the fall, and others have prohibited or discouraged schools from offering remote learning options.

In Arizona, for example, a ban on mask mandates was included in the recently passed state budget.

After the CDC announced the new recommendations Friday, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said in a statement that her state’s schools “may be prevented from leaning on local data and the recommendations of local health experts regarding mask requirements because the governor and GOP-led legislature have chosen to prioritize conspiracy theories over public safety.”

Community factors will guide school precautions

Masks have been particularly divisive for school leaders, but the CDC has also identified them as one of the most important steps schools can take to lower the risk of transmission on-site. Even as the CDC said in May that vaccinated members of the general public no longer need to wear masks in most settings, it urged schools to keep mask requirements for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year and await further guidance about the fall.

In general, vaccinated individuals don’t need to wear masks because their risks of catching and transmitting coronavirus are very low, the new guidance says, and masks aren’t necessary outdoors in uncrowded areas. But the guidance outlines some situations in which schools may consider universal mask mandates:

  • In places like elementary schools, where large numbers of students are not yet eligible for vaccinations;
  • On school buses to comply with federal requirements for face coverings on public transportation;
  • In areas with rapid community spread of more contagious virus variants;
  • In schools that lack a system to track how many students, teachers, and staff are vaccinated;
  • In response to concerns from community members who may not return to in-person learning if mask wearing is not universal; and
  • In situations where it is difficult to enforce a mandate that is not universal.

Karen Sanchez-Griego, superintendent of Cuba Independent School district in New Mexico, said she would have concerns about a mask policy that requires some students to wear them, but not all. The district currently follows the state department of education’s guidelines, which say that all students must wear masks.

A policy that would require vaccinated students to wear masks, but allow unvaccinated students not to, would force the district to develop protocols for verifying students’ vaccination status, Sanchez-Griego said--and then teachers would have to “be the police at school.” If the state were to change its policy in light of the new CDC guidance, Cuba ISD would have to go through a decision-making process about what to do, which would include consulting the community, she added.

Broad virus testing plans may be especially helpful in schools with high rates of virus transmission in their surrounding communities, the CDC said, but vaccinated people do not need to participate in those screenings. Schools should offer weekly screening tests for unvaccinated teachers and staff. And all schools except those in the lowest-risk areas under federal guidelines should also offer weekly tests to unvaccinated students. Fully vaccinated people do not need to isolate after a possible virus exposure if they don’t have symptoms, the recommendations say.

The agency recommends schools in “high transmission areas” cancel “high risk” extracurricular activities, including high-contact sports like wrestling and football and indoor activities like choir and band. About 14 percent of U.S. counties are currently deemed high transmission, with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, according to the most recent federal data.

Vaccination rates a factor in school reopening plans

As they approach the next school year, school leaders must find a balance: Any strategies they adopt must be nonrestrictive enough to be accepted by the greater school community but cautious enough to address concerns of families who may be reluctant to return to in-person schooling.

While the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education showed about 63 percent of public schools with 4th or 8th grades were open full-time in-person for all students in May, that same data showed students of color were more likely than their peers to opt to stay home.

Leaders of the national teachers unions’, which have been concerned about school virus precautions in the past, praised the CDC guidance and supported its calls for in-person learning Friday. In statements, leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association called on schools to maintain strategies like mask requirements and on community members to get vaccinated.

While federal data show that a majority of educators have been vaccinated, rates of adult inoculation are lower in certain regions, and children under 12 will not have access to COVID-19 shots until September at the earliest.

The CDC recommends schools encourage vaccinations and consider partnering with local health authorities to offer them to students, staff, and family members. But, so far, a slim majority of older students and their parents have reported being willing to take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only vaccine so far approved for those 12-18. In an April survey more than 56 percent of parents of adolescents ages 12-17 said they strongly supported vaccinating their children. However, among the 16- and 17-year-olds who were in the first children’s age group eligible for the vaccine, little more than 1 in 4 had actually received at least one of the two-dose vaccine series.

The CDC found that 26 percent of parents and 30 percent of adolescents said they would be comfortable receiving the shots at a school-based clinic.

In an accompanying science brief Friday, the CDC said studies showed that schools could safely offer in-person learning with appropriate precautions. But it cited the evolving nature of the pandemic, noting that contagious variants and vaccination rates may affect future data.

School leaders face tricky political considerations

While some school and district leaders told Education Week they are comfortable with their plans for the next school year, others said that decisions about reopening remain challenging, even with additional federal guidance.

Wes Kanawyer, the principal of Woodgate Intermediate School in Woodway, Texas, said the new CDC guidelines were “affirming” of what Midway ISD School district has done this past school year.

Students attended school in-person all through 2020-21, with schools using mask-wearing, distancing, aggressiveness sanitation protocols, quarantining, and screening as part of a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention strategy.

“What we did during the school day was extremely effective—so it was affirming” to hear the new CDC guidelines,”Kanawyer said.

But Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, a Republican, signed an executive order in May that prohibits school mask mandates.

School leaders in other communities expect many parents to continue a cautious approach to the next school year.

Many students in the Cuba Independent district, for example, are part of the Navajo Nation, where the virus took an enormous toll, said Sanchez-Griego, the New Mexico superintendent. But some parents are also hesitant to have their children receive the vaccine.

The district has set up a vaccine clinic for students 12 and up, and has encouraged families to attend. Still, Sanchez-Griego said, “we want to make sure we’re not pushing any agenda or getting in the middle of what’s best for families.”

And while Sanchez-Griego wants students to feel comfortable coming into the building to learn in person, the district is keeping its remote option for next year. It has also spent $1.2 million, including federal COVID-19 relief money, to ensure that students in remote areas have internet connection because some parents are still fearful of sending their children back to school buildings.

“I’ve talked to our leaders and our principals and everyone else, and we’re going to approach this in a way in which we honor and respect families,” she said.

Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor; and Ileana Najarro, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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