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CDC says vaccinated kids & teachers don’t need COVID masks at school

Loosening its COVID-19 guidelines in light of vaccination campaign successes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that vaccinated teachers and students no longer have to mask up in the classroom.

The nation's top public health agency emphasized that returning for in-person learning in the fall of 2021 is a priority. While it acknowledging that vaccination is the "leading public health strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic," however, the CDC has not gone so far as to advise that schools require teachers and eligible students receive vaccines.

Because K-12 schools will have both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the building, the CDC said that it still recommends keeping students 3 feet apart in the classroom, as well as having students and teachers who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear masks.

The development comes only a day after publication of a study that says one dose of a two-part vaccine regimen does not offer enough protection against what is being called the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The highly transmissible mutation emerged in India and has quickly become the dominant strain in the United States. Hospitalization rates due to the virus are lower in America than they have been in over a year, and what cases there are all have one thing in common: the patients opted not to get the vaccine.

Weighing in about the spikes in transmission largely led by the delta variant, Lee Riley, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that regional differences are only one factor. Another consideration, he said, is how vaccines have been received in population subgroups of a community.

“Vaccination rates are significantly lower in Latinx and African-American communities, as well as among those who consider themselves Republican in large cities as well as in rural areas," Riley told Courthouse News. "Clearly, more concerted efforts need to be made to reach out to these communities, especially to protect their school-age children and their teachers.”

Riley further explained the variant could hit schools in communities with low vaccination coverage harder than others, particularly if spread is occurring among those younger than 12 — an age group yet to be approved to be vaccinated.

“Its transmission is greatly facilitated in congregate settings such as schools, and children under 12 years of age can potentially become an important reservoir, as they are not yet eligible for the vaccines,” he said. “Teachers and other school staff adults who have not been fully vaccinated will be the major risk group for getting the severe disease with the delta variant.”

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Friday's update from the CDC says schools should work with local public health authorities to determine what COVID-19 prevention strategies are needed in their area, accounting for their community’s level of transmission and vaccination rates. 

“Based on the needs of the community, school administrators may opt to make mask use universally required (i.e., required regardless of vaccination status) in the school,” the CDC wrote.

Offering some examples of situations where universal mask-wearing mandates may still be appropriate, the guidance points to areas where community COVID-19 transmission rates are high and to communities that have a student-body population younger than 12. Another factor, according to the CDC, is prevalence of a COVID-19 variant that is “spread more easily among children and adolescents.

“The guidance is intended to help administrators and local health officials select appropriate, layered prevention strategies and understand how to safely transition learning environments out of COVID-19 pandemic precautions as community transmission of COVID-19 reaches low levels or stops,” the agency wrote on its site.

It emphasized that promoting vaccination is the foremost way to help ensure schools can safely return to full operations.

“People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are at low risk of symptomatic or severe infection,” the agency wrote. “A growing body of evidence suggests that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are less likely to have an asymptomatic infection or transmit COVID-19 to others than people who are not fully vaccinated.”

The CDC added Friday that offering vaccinations on site and providing paid sick leave for employees or excuses for students so that they can get vaccinated could help schools promote vaccinations.

In places with decreasing number of COVID-19 cases and high vaccination coverage, Riley said a more flexible set of guidelines for K-12 schools seem justified. “The new CDC guidelines still do recommend masking for those who have not been vaccinated and they call for maintaining physical distancing to the extent possible within the school structure,” the epidemiologist reiterated.

The CDC’s recommendations are merely guides, not federal mandates, but will likely shape the way many schools reopen in the fall. 

“CDC continues to recommend masking and physical distancing as key prevention strategies,” the agency said. “However, if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing through the school and/or community) for any increases in COVID-19 cases.”

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The guidance is among the bigger updates for schools since March when the agency said they should keep students and staff 3 feet apart rather than 6, as was initially recommended.

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Friday's update from the CDC says schools should work with local public health authorities to determine what COVID-19 prevention strategies are needed in their area, accounting for their community’s level of transmission and vaccination rates.