The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, but despite that California said its mask guidance for schools will remain in place.
"California will continue to require that masks be worn indoors in school settings, which also will ensure that all kids are treated the same," state public health officials said.
The state said most schools can’t accommodate a physical distancing at least 3-feet or more, so the best preventative measure is indoor masking.
"Masking is a simple and effective intervention that does not interfere with offering full in-person instruction," said California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. "At the outset of the new year, students should be able to walk into school without worrying about whether they will feel different or singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated – treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment."
The changes updated CDC guidance comes amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, as well as a general decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
"We’re at a new point in the pandemic that we’re all really excited about," and so it’s time to update the guidance, said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who leads the CDC task force that prepares recommendations designed to keep Americans safe from COVID-19.
The nation’s top public health agency is not advising schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids. And it’s not offering guidance on how teachers can know which students are vaccinated or how parents will know which teachers are immunized.
That’s probably going to make for some challenging school environments, said Elizabeth Stuart, a John Hopkins University public health professor who has children in elementary and middle schools.
"It would be a very weird dynamic, socially, to have some kids wearing masks and some not. And tracking that? Teachers shouldn’t need to be keeping track of which kids should have masks on," she said.
The CDC recognizes that physical distancing in schools could be a headache. But the agency emphasized that spacing should not be an obstacle to getting kids back in schools. And it said distancing is not required among fully vaccinated students or staff.
All of this may prove hard to implement, and that’s why CDC is advising schools to make decisions that make the most sense, Sauber-Schatz said.
The biggest questions will be at middle schools where some students are eligible for shots and others aren’t. If sorting vaccinated and unvaccinated students proves too burdensome, administrators might choose to just keep a masking policy in place for everyone.
"The guidance is really written to allow flexibility at the local level," Sauber-Schatz said.
Early in the pandemic, health officials worried schools might become coronavirus cauldrons that spark community outbreaks. But studies have shown that schools often see less transmission than the surrounding community when certain prevention measures are followed.
The new guidance is the latest revision to advice the CDC began making to schools last year.
In March, the CDC stopped recommending that children and their desks be spaced 6 feet apart, shrinking the distance to 3 feet, and dropped its call for use of plastic shields.
In May, the agency said Americans in general don’t have to be as cautious about masks and distancing outdoors, and that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most situations. That change was incorporated into updated guidance for summer camps — and now, schools.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, called the new CDC guidance "an important roadmap for reducing the risk of COVID-19 in schools."
She added: "Schools should be consistently and rigorously employing all the recommended mitigation strategies, including requiring masks in all settings where there are unvaccinated individuals present, and ensuring adequate ventilation, handwashing, and cleaning."
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona pledged to work with schools to help them get kids back into classrooms.
"We know that in-person learning offers vital opportunities for all students to develop healthy, nurturing relationships with educators and peers, and that students receive essential supports in school for their social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and academic success," he said in a statement.