- Federal officials have told schools that students and employees who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear masks when in-person classes resume.
- They add that unvaccinated people should still wear masks while in indoors.
- Experts note that school administrators will need to decide how to deal with a school population where some people are vaccinated and others aren’t.
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According to new federal guidelines, students and school employees who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 don’t need to wear masks when classes return to in-person learning this fall.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued
“Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the guidelines state.
The CDC says that in general, masks don’t need to be worn outdoors at school.
It also advises that schools implement at least 3 feet of physical distancing between students in classrooms in combination with indoor mask wearing for those who aren’t fully vaccinated.
The guidance states children shouldn’t be excluded from in-person learning when such physical distancing isn’t possible. But in such instances, other prevention strategies should be used.
“When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking,” the CDC states.
Dr. Dean Blumberg, head of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in California, says that the masking guidelines will be beneficial in a crowded classroom environment.
“The idea for the masking is if social distancing can’t be done indoors that’s when the mask comes into play and prevents further transmission of infection,” he told Healthline.
“Since children are relatively crowded in schools, of course the ultimate goal is to make sure there’s not widespread transmission events that are occurring in school that could result in shutting down of in-person learning.”
Blumberg added, “If they’re not able to social distance, then certainly children who are unvaccinated should be masking, that’s the safest thing for them to prevent transmission to them, whereas the vaccinated people are relatively safe.”
The CDC says that school administrators need to make decisions about the best COVID-19 prevention strategies for their school, noting that schools may have a mixed population of people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Currently, children under 12 years old aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
This means that elementary schools and some middle and K-8 schools may have students on campus who aren’t yet able to be vaccinated.
Middle and high schools might also have a low number of students and staff who remain unvaccinated despite being eligible.
Blumberg said that this could pose some challenges in applying masking guidelines.
“For some schools, it will be easy for them to implement,” he explained.
“For example, [for] some high schools, if the families want to submit the information on the vaccine status for their children. [For] others that have mixed populations, including those less than 12 years of age, it might be more of a challenge since the vaccine isn’t available for less than 12 years of age so it would be more difficult to enforce those guidelines.”
In certain situations, such as in school cafeterias where masks aren’t worn, Blumberg says that other prevention strategies should be implemented.
“I would hope for cafeterias where you can’t wear a mask that people will adequately be able to social distance if they’re unvaccinated. Schools may not consider this to be feasible. Certainly many schools have been doing this by having the children eat in shifts and staggering lunch times so that the whole school doesn’t have lunch at the same time. I think it can be done,” he said.
The updated guidance emphasizes using multiple prevention strategies on school campuses to protect those who aren’t fully vaccinated.
Suggested strategies include promoting the COVID-19 vaccination, physically distancing, wearing masks, properly ventilating rooms, washing hands, cleaning and disinfecting, testing, contact tracing, and staying home when sick.
“Even without vaccination, masking, social distancing, testing, and contact tracing, we’ve shown that having these available can limit transmission in schools and that schools can be open and they’re safe places for children,” Blumberg said.