Face masks for all K-12 students, staff recommended for upcoming school year, CDC says

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School-age students and staff heading back to class this fall should wear masks — even if they’ve been vaccinated — according to the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In updated guidance published Tuesday, the public health agency moved to reinstate mask protocols for the upcoming school year — reversing course on previous recommendations that said students, faculty and staff vaccinated against COVID-19 could forego face masks while indoors.

The new guidance apply to all K-12 students, staff, faculty and visitors. Those who still haven’t gotten the vaccine, including children older than 2, should also continue masking up, according to the CDC.

Face coverings generally aren’t needed while outside, however.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the decision wasn’t one that was taken lightly.

“It’s not a welcome piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated,” Walensky told reporters Tuesday. “So this new data weighs heavily on me, this new guidance weighs heavily on me.”

With kids under 12 still ineligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, parents and teachers have voiced health and safety concerns as the school year draws near. Health officials are also sounding the alarm on the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant, which now accounts for more than 80% of U.S. COVID cases.

“I think people really need to be focused on delta,” Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic biology at Houston Methodist Hospital, told USA Today. “Most importantly, regardless of the variant, our best defense against all these variants is vaccination.”

It’s unclear how the updated guidance will impact states — including South Carolina, Texas, Iowa and Arkansas — that have moved to restrict local governments and school districts from imposing mask mandates.

“Everyone should wear a mask,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said last year amid calls for a statewide mask mandate. “But we cannot force people to do what they don’t want to do.”

News of the CDC’s updated guidance was cheered by experts including Duke University’s Dr. Gavin Yamey, who said the public health agency was right to update its mask recommendations.

“Sound pandemic management requires tailoring measures to the local situation on the ground,” Yamey, a professor of global health and public health at the Duke Global Health Institute, said in a statement Tuesday. “The right public health response to control these surges is to use a range of science-based approaches — community-wide indoor mask mandates, social distancing rules, scaling up test and trace, and intensifying workplace and school mitigations (including improved ventilation) — until vaccination rates increase.”

Medical experts and education groups had been split on the CDC’s previous guidance that relaxed mask rules for vaccinated students, McClatchy News reported. Many questioned whether it was the safest move as COVID-19 cases started climbing again in the U.S..

The CDC also called on schools to implement “layered prevention strategies” aimed at protecting unvaccinated students and staff members.

The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the issue, recommending universal mask wearing for the upcoming school year, according to McClatchy News. Experts pointed to several factors, including the fact that “a significant portion of the student population” isn’t eligible for the COVID shot.

Low levels of vaccination in the surrounding school community could also put students at risk, the group said.

“There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated,” Sara Bode, chairperson elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee, said in a statement. “This is why it’s important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID-19.

Yamey agreed.

“There are a huge number of vulnerable people, including children under 12 who can’t yet get vaccinated and those who are immunocompromised,” he said. “and the new CDC guidance will help to protect them.”

As of July 27, 60% of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest CDC data. Nearly 70% have received at least one dose of the shot.

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