Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday announced new COVID-19 guidance for masking in schools, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker told reporters he was "very pleased" to see the recommendations released.
According to the new guidance, vaccinated teachers and students don't need to wear masks inside school buildings, a change that 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.
Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference Friday that upon his first read of the guidance, he feels the CDC's goals are the same as his own: "getting every child ... back into school this fall."
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"I will say it also focuses on what I have focused on for more than a year now," Pritzker said, "which is everybody's safety and health. So the combination of that I think was, seems to have been achieved."
Pritzker said the Illinois Department of Public Health was looking at the guidance and state health officials planned to discuss it later on Friday.
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.
Another potential headache: Schools should continue to space kids — and their desks — 3 feet apart in classrooms, the CDC says. 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.
What about requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of school attendance? That's commonly done across the country to prevent spread of measles and other diseases.
The CDC has repeatedly praised such requirements, but the agency on Friday didn't recommend that measure because it is considered a state and local policy decision, CDC officials 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.
The new schools guidance says:
- No one at schools needs to wear masks at recess or in most other outdoor situations. However, unvaccinated people are advised to wear masks if they are in a crowd for an extended period of time, like in the stands at a football game.
- Ventilation and handwashing continue to be important. Students and staff also should stay home when they are sick.
- Testing remains an important way to prevent outbreaks. But the CDC also says people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in such screening.
- Separating students into smaller groups, or cohorts, continues to be a good way to help reduce spread of the virus. But the CDC discouraged putting vaccinated and unvaccinated kids in separate groups, saying schools shouldn't stigmatize any group or perpetuate academic, racial or other tracking.