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CDC guidance for fall: Open schools, but unvaccinated students need masks

Second graders after music class at Roseville Community Charter School on April 20, 2021.
Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

Young students should continue to wear masks at school, but vaccinated older students and teachers don’t need to, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in new guidance for next school year.

The agency is continuing to recommend physical distancing of at least three feet, though if that’s not practically feasible, officials say that shouldn’t get in the way of fully reopening school buildings. The agency’s overarching message: Get students back into buildings, but don’t give up some efforts to prevent the spread of COVID.

“Because of the importance of in-person learning, schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing … but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement,” the CDC said.

Unlike last school year, schools across the country are expecting to open their doors for in-person learning, five days a week. But some have been hoping for new CDC guidance to lean on as they make decisions about exactly how to do so.

Friday’s recommendations are likely to provide some clarity, although the guidance is not a mandate. And it leaves room for communities to make decisions based on how the virus is spreading, local vaccination rates, and whether a community was disproportionately affected by COVID.

Here’s what the CDC is recommending:

  • Masking: Vaccinated teachers and other school staff no longer have to wear masks, but can continue to do so if they want to. Unvaccinated people, including children under 12 who are not eligible for shots, should continue to wear face masks while at school, while vaccinated students can go unmasked. All students should wear masks on school buses. In general, students and staff do not need to wear masks outside during gym or recess, but are encouraged to do so in crowded outdoor settings if they are not vaccinated and levels of virus transmission are high.
  • Distancing: Schools should continue to keep students three feet apart in the classroom when possible. If it’s not possible — and if it would prevent schools from fully reopening — the CDC says schools should take additional precautions, such as indoor masking. Schools should keep as much distance as possible between unvaccinated students when they are eating indoors.
  • Vaccines: Schools can play a key role in promoting vaccination, the CDC says, by encouraging school staff and families to get vaccinated, partnering with health authorities to serve as vaccine sites, and offering sick leave to staff who take time off to get the vaccine. The guidance also notes that schools can track student vaccine status — if they volunteer it — using existing protocols for other vaccines, and then use this data to make decisions about which COVID prevention strategies to employ.
  • Ventilation: Schools should continue to ensure that classrooms are well ventilated in order to reduce spread of COVID.
  • Quarantining: Students and staff who are fully vaccinated and do not have COVID symptoms do not need to quarantine or get tested after they are exposed to someone with the virus. People who are not fully vaccinated should still quarantine after a recent exposure.
  • Cleaning: In general, schools only need to clean their buildings once a day to remove any potential virus from surfaces.

The CDC’s new guidance comes as two-thirds of U.S. adults — and the vast majority of teachers — have been at least partially vaccinated, and COVID infection rates have ebbed.

Still, vaccination rates remain low in large swaths of the country, and children under 12 are not eligible to get vaccinated.

The CDC also said districts should make decisions based on rates on local spread. That’s notable in light of the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is spreading in parts of the country with low vaccination rates.

“CDC will continue to monitor variants to see if they have any impact on prevention strategies and how COVID-19 vaccines work in real-world conditions and will update guidance accordingly,” the guidance says.

The varying vaccination rates means the country remains a patchwork of more- and less-vulnerable places, and in districts that had already committed to distancing and masking policies next year, plans differ widely.

For instance, New Jersey recently said it will not require schools to maintain masking rules, but Newark — the state’s largest district — will continue to require universal masking. In Chicago, the teachers union is seeking a deal with the district that will continue to mandate masks within schools. But many other places already dropped masks this past school year or have signaled they won’t be required this fall.

The CDC leaves room for schools to require students and staff to wear masks, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Reasons might include low vaccination rates among students or staff, difficulty enforcing a non-universal masking policy, or reluctance among students and staff to come into school buildings without a universal mask policy.

For some school leaders, the new distancing recommendations will be the most critical piece of the guidance, as they lack the space to keep all students further apart. Philadelphia has said its full-time back-to-school plans, for example, hinged on the CDC relaxing distancing guidelines.

It’s unclear if the guidance will help assuage the fears of families who’ve remained hesitant to send their children back into school buildings. Some school districts — including Los Angeles and Miami — have already announced that they will continue to offer fully virtual instruction this fall.

The latest federal data, released this week, show that while nearly every student in the country had the option to learn in person by May, about a quarter of students remained fully remote — with notably higher rates for Asian and Black students.

Parents have also become increasingly receptive to in-person instruction for their children. A recent poll found that three quarters of parents were at least somewhat comfortable having their child in school buildings. Still, that leaves a substantial number of parents who were not comfortable, and those families are more likely to be Black and Hispanic. Schools have been working to build trust, especially with families of color, through home visits, open houses, and more to demonstrate the safety measures they will continue this fall.

Reactions from the country’s two national teachers unions, both allies of the Biden administration, were mixed. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised the new guidance, describing it as “grounded in both science and common sense.”

The National Education Association’s President Becky Pringle said the guidance was an “important roadmap” but indicated in a statement that she wanted masks to be required “in all settings where there are unvaccinated individuals present” — extending that requirement to millions of teachers and adults working with younger students.

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