Student Well-Being Explainer

What Does the CDC’s New Mask Recommendation Mean for Schools?

By Evie Blad & Stephen Sawchuk — May 14, 2021 7 min read
White Plains High School students walk between classes, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in White Plains, N.Y.
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Even as vaccinated adults stop wearing masks in many settings, schools should maintain recommended COVID-19 “layered mitigation strategies,” including masks, through at least the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a Saturday update.

That advice came days after the agency said fully vaccinated adults no longer need to wear masks or maintain social distancing guidelines, indoors or outdoors.

That relaxed recommendation may have created a sense of freedom for vaccinated Americans, but it also created some questions about the next year for K-12 schools, where masks have been a key strategy for slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC will update its guidance for 2021-22 school year “in coming weeks” to give educators time to plan, the Saturday update said.

Mask requirements have been politically tricky for state leaders and district administrators alike.

What’s most concerning: While children are less likely to face severe illness from COVID-19, a majority of students won’t be eligible for vaccines until the fall. States have demonstrated little interest in mandating the shots, and schools are one of the most common places where large numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are most likely to interact on a regular basis. There’s also some concern about more contagious variants of the virus, which may be more easily spread by children.

“Although it’s great news that our 12 and up are eligible for a vaccine, there’s obviously a lot of people under age 12 that are in our school setting, so we’re still going to be for a while predominantly unvaccinated students,” North Carolina Health Director Betsey Tilson told the state’s board of education Thursday, according to the News & Observer. “And we see that strength of that mask mandate.”

Even as they awaited further federal recommendations last week, some state leaders, like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, said they didn’t intend to relax school mask mandates any time soon. Others, like South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had already taken steps to end the requirements, or to allow families to opt out, before the latest actions by the CDC.

Here’s what schools need to know.

What has the CDC said about masks in schools?

The CDC has identified universal mask-wearing as one of the most important “layered mitigation strategies” school leaders can put in place to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission in their buildings.

Updated guidance released by the agency in February stressed face coverings alongside social distancing and hand washing as keys for safe reopening. The CDC later revised its social distancing guidelines, saying it was safe for children to sit 3 feet apart in most cases as long as they wear masks. Those new recommendations still called for adults to maintain 6 feet of distance.

Asked Thursday how schools should respond to the new general guidance for the public, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stressed that state and local mandates still apply.

“So, my first message is: If you are not fully vaccinated, you are not fully protected. And so, you need to be continuing to wear your mask and practicing all of the mitigation strategies that we’ve been discussing before,” Walensky said.

How many teachers and students are vaccinated?

While not speaking about schools specifically, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief epidemiologist, stressed to CNN Thursday that unvaccinated children still need to wear masks, even if the adults around them don’t.

“The children do, when they’re out there playing with their friends and, you know, particularly in an indoor situation they do,” Fauci said.

That’s a concern for schools because children ages 12- to 15-years-old just became eligible for vaccines this week. It will take some time to get those children through the two-dose Pfizer vaccine sequence, which requires shots spaced at least 21 days apart. The company does not expect to seek emergency use authorization for younger children until September, and other vaccine makers have not yet won approval for patients younger than 18.

The CDC cited a lack of fully vaccinated students as justification for keeping schools’ COVID-19 precautions in place Saturday.

While adults are most likely to face severe illness from COVID-19, children still face some risk, particularly if they have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable, epidemiologists have said. Masks have helped prevent children from contracting the virus and from unknowingly passing it on to others when they have few symptoms, research has suggested.

Adults in schools are more likely to be vaccinated, especially after state and federal officials prioritized them for early vaccine doses in February and March as part of their efforts to promote in-person instruction. The CDC estimated that nearly 80 percent of the nation’s teachers, school staff members, and child-care workers had received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.

In some areas, the numbers of unvaccinated adults are much higher. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in late April, found that 16 percent of teachers and school and district leaders said they are not vaccinated and do not have an appointment.

And there may be reasons for adults to continue wearing masks, even if they are vaccinated, health officials have said. For one, states and districts must largely rely on the honor system, especially in states that have banned “vaccine passports,” which would provide a consistent way of proving one’s vaccinated status. Also, adults may want to set an example.

“Parents, and perhaps even teachers, may want to continue wearing masks to model behavior” for children who haven’t been vaccinated, Walensky said on the Today Show Friday.

What’s the role of CDC guidance?

CDC guidance to schools is nonbinding, and states and districts have varied in how much they’ve adhered to it throughout the pandemic.

In states like Alabama and Arizona that had already loosened up masking requirements, many districts have faced a tough call about whether to continue on their own. Urban districts, in general, appeared more likely to keep their requirements in place —perhaps in part because of more densely packed populations—while rural districts appeared to be less likely.

Before the latest CDC recommendations, some states had kept school mask mandates in place; others had never instituted them; still others rolled theirs back earlier this year.

In South Carolina, McMaster last week signed an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of district mask requirements. And governors in Arkansas and Utah have already said schools will not be able to require masks in the fall.

Other leaders have taken the opposite approach. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, for example, said she expects schools to continue the face covering policies laid out in the state’s school guidance. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said students will need to continue wearing masks.

Minnesota’s largest school system, Minneapolis, announced May 14 it would continue to require masks for the remainder of the school year, citing local city policy. (Gov. Tim Walz relaxed state mask requirements May 13 in accordance with the CDC order.)

The Austin, Texas, school district said it will continue to require masking through the end of the school year, noting the difficulty of tracking vaccinations.

Elsewhere, leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach, saying they are monitoring factors like vaccination rates, virus spread, the growth of more contagious variants, and additional public health guidance as they chart a course for the next school year.

How has divided public opinion complicated discussions about masks in schools?

Masking quickly morphed from a health policy discussion to a political statement in the early days of the pandemic. Rumors and misinformation about face coverings also abounded on social media, complicating efforts by states and districts to take a purely scientific or health-based approach.

In some places, parents and protesters dramatically confronted school boards to push for the end of mask mandates.

But others have said such policies make them more comfortable sending their children to in-person school. Even as districts offer in-person options, Black and Latino families, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, are the most likely to keep their children home for remote learning, federal data show.

The CDC guidance has been key to forming trust with cautious families, and it’s also formed the basis of many districts’ agreements with teacher and employee unions as they hammered out how to reopen safely.

National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement Friday that the new CDC mask recommendation for the public “highlights again the critical importance of everyone, including all students who are now eligible, getting vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

“CDC’s key mitigation measures for safe in-person instruction, including wearing masks, should remain in place in schools and institutions of higher education to protect all students and others who are not vaccinated,” she said, noting that only about a third of adults are vaccinated.

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