The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated mask guidance on Friday for K-12 schools, permitting vaccinated students to discard face coverings except when they are riding the school bus or if the school decides otherwise.
The federal guidelines are not mandatory, but many local school districts and state government officials take CDC recommendations into strong consideration when making policy.
Removing school face mask requirements for children who have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine may be used as an incentive for parents to get their eligible children vaccinated.
"Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority," the CDC said. "Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports."
Currently, children older than 12 are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses three weeks apart. While public health experts stress that the benefits of vaccination outweigh potential risks, parents should be aware there is a possible link between mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer vaccine and rare cases of heart inflammation, particularly among young males.
Unvaccinated students and staff should continue to wear masks, according to the CDC. Additionally, the CDC recommends that unvaccinated kids be socially distanced in the classroom with at least three feet of separation from other children. "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 said.
All bus drivers and passengers, vaccinated or not, should wear masks while traveling to and from school.
The CDC did not weigh in on the controversial issue of whether school districts should require students to show proof of vaccination. "Policies or practices related to providing or receiving proof of COVID-19 vaccination should comply with all relevant state, tribal, local, or territorial laws and regulations," the agency said.
Increased concerns over COVID-19 variants could influence public policy decisions as schools consider whether to adopt the CDC's recommendations. Recent spikes in coronavirus cases have been attributed to the Delta variant, which appears to be more transmissible than other variants, although it is unclear whether it is deadlier.
Recently, Biden administration public health officials have suggested that even vaccinated Americans may want to consider wearing masks again when traveling to areas with low vaccination rates. While a vaccinated individual is protected from getting sick, there is a risk that the virus can still spread to unvaccinated people who can get very sick, and mask-wearing is believed to mitigate spread of the virus.