The new guidelines mark the first time the CDC has recommended that fully vaccinated students and teachers do not need to wear masks in the classroom. The updates come amid an increasing number of Covid-19 cases linked to the more-transmissible Delta variant in states across the South, Southwest and Midwest.
Depending on the levels of community spread and vaccination rates, schools may decide to universally mandate masks, the CDC said, adding that it is up to local officials to decide the best way to reduce and contain the virus.
The CDC strongly recommended that all those eligible to receive Covid-19 vaccine should get the shot to help facilitate in-person instruction.
“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,” the CDC said in a statement.
The CDC stressed that its guidance is meant to supplement local public health policies, not replace them. But it is also encouraging schools to allow all students to attend class in person, even if physical distancing is not possible.
The agency pointed to studies showing that schools were not a major source of Covid-19 transmission, especially when other precautions beyond distancing were taken.
Still, the guidelines recommend that schools dropping their pandemic measures do so gradually in an effort to avoid triggering outbreaks.
“They should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing) for any increases in COVID-19 cases,” the CDC said.
While the nation’s top teachers’ unions backed the health agency’s latest guidance on Friday, their leaders expressed concerns about the fast-spreading Delta variant and urged schools to keep up safety measures deployed during the nation’s deadliest encounters with the disease.
“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,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement, while calling for schools to use “proven Covid-19 screening testing” to isolate cases and reduce the virus’ spread.
“The guidance confirms two truths: that students learn better in the classroom, and that vaccines remain our best bet to stop the spread of this virus and get our kids and educators fully back to those classrooms for in-person learning,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said. “It also makes clear that masking is important in the absence of vaccination,” she said, in addition to upgraded ventilation, regular virus testing, and three feet of physical distancing.
“We share the growing concern over the delta variant, as well as the evolving science around Covid transmission in young people, all of which make it incumbent upon school districts to remain committed both to vaccinations, and to these safety protocols,” Weingarten said.