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CDC changes course on masks in schools as delta variant complicates fall planning

Students wearing face masks and carrying protective desk shields.

The CDC now advises all students and staff to wear masks inside schools.

Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Reversing course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that all students and staff should wear masks inside schools, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated — an acknowledgment that slowing vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant are complicating plans for a more normal start to the school year.

Earlier this month, the CDC said that vaccinated students and school staff could go maskless, but that school leaders could issue universal masking policies if they saw fit. Children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, but the previous guidance left room for high schools with vaccinated staff and students to operate without face coverings.

Now, with new evidence that vaccinated people can spread the delta variant, federal health officials say that’s too risky to recommend.

“With only 30% of our kids between 12 and 17 fully vaccinated now, more cases in this country, and a real effort to try and make sure that our kids can safely get back to full in-person learning in the fall, we’re recommending that everybody wear masks right now,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

It’s unclear how many schools will change their masking policies as a result of the new guidance. Some districts, like Indianapolis Public Schools, did use the earlier guidance to craft policy. But masking has become a political flashpoint, and already, many schools did not follow the CDC’s guidance. 

Some political leaders, like the Tennessee governor, said masks weren’t necessary in schools because school staff can get vaccinated and children are at a low risk of getting severely ill or dying from the virus. There, just one school district, Memphis, has mandated masks for all students and staff, while other school districts made masks optional. Meanwhile, the Florida governor is threatening to take legislative action to prevent schools from requiring masks. 

But the new guidance won’t lead to changes in some states and large school districts like Chicago and California that were already planning to require all students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings, regardless of whether they were vaccinated. 

“Based on widespread scientific consensus, we know that proven strategies like the ones announced today will keep students healthy, safe and supported,” the interim head of Chicago’s schools, José Torres, said in a letter to parents this month.

Masks have been a key mitigation strategy throughout the pandemic, but they do present instructional challenges for teachers. Some teachers have said masks make it harder to connect with students. Masks also can make it difficult to provide services to some students with disabilities and English learners who benefit from watching educators enunciate their words.

The new masking guidance adds one more complexity to an already long list of planning challenges for school leaders, many of whom are still working to persuade hesitant families to return to in-person school this fall. Black and Latino parents remain the most wary, national surveys have found. 

Schools have also had to contend with whether to require teachers to get vaccinated, and whether to offer a full-time virtual option this fall, as some families still want them. Summer school is underway in many parts of the country, while some students and teachers have already started returning for the new school year. 

The new recommendation brings the CDC closer in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently recommended that everyone over 2 wear a mask inside schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The heads of the nation’s two largest teachers unions issued statements in support of the guidance on Tuesday. Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, urged schools to follow the recommendation and said the union supported “robust masking policies,” while Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said universal masking in schools was “a necessary precaution” until vaccination rates are higher and younger children can get shots.

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