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Schools Are Deciding What The New CDC Mask Guidelines Mean For The Classroom

A girl in Jersey City wears a mask at her Pre-K graduation ceremony almost a year ago. Now schools are deciding how looser CDC guidelines on masks affect education.
Seth Wenig
A girl in Jersey City wears a mask at her Pre-K graduation ceremony almost a year ago. Now schools are deciding how looser CDC guidelines on masks affect education.

Updated May 13, 2021 at 10:49 PM ET

This week has brought a few dizzying updates to the year-long school-reopening story.

In a surprise move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its COVID-19 safety guidance, telling people who have been fully vaccinated that, with some exceptions, they can now gather indoors as well as outside without face masks or social distancing. The announcement came just one day after the CDC also gave the green light for children ages 12 to 15 to begin receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

What does all of this mean for schools? It's complicated.

The vaccination expansion is certainly good news for families and for school leaders who want to see their middle schools fully reopen. It likely won't have much impact on many districts' plans for the remainder of the school year, since children receiving their first shot won't be considered "fully" vaccinated for five more weeks, but it will certainly make it easier for classrooms to fully reopen in the fall if many students return vaccinated.

It's worth mentioning, though, that allowing younger children to be vaccinated doesn't guarantee they will be. Recent polling from the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor found considerable vaccine hesitancy among the families of early adolescents. Nearly a quarter said they would definitely not vaccinate their children, while a quarter remained undecided. Another 18% said they would allow their child to be vaccinated if schools require it, and just 30% of caregivers said their children would get the shot as soon as possible.

In an effort to reassure anxious families, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement recommending COVID-19 vaccinations for children 12 years and older, saying "vaccines are safe and effective in protecting individuals and populations against infectious diseases" and that "new vaccines are evaluated by a long-standing, rigorous, and transparent process."

As for the CDC's revision of its masking rules, it is unclear what impact this will have on teachers, staff and students in the near term. Though the CDC has not yet revised its K-12 schools safety guidance, at least one district did move quickly Thursday to announce changes to its own in-school safety policies.

"In accordance with the new [CDC] guidance, Cobb Schools will no longer require fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask," wrote Chris Ragsdale, the superintendent of schools in Cobb County, Ga. "I would also like to make clear that any individual wishing to continue wearing a mask while attending school and/or school events should feel free to do so."

But Becky Pringle, the president of the nation's largest teachers union, the NEA, urged state and district leaders not to scrap in-school masking mandates.

"We know at this point that only a third of adults are vaccinated and no students younger than 16 are vaccinated," Pringle said in a statement. "CDC's key mitigation measures for safe in-person instruction, including wearing masks, should remain in place in schools and institutions of higher education to protect all students and others who are not vaccinated."

In many places where mask-wearing has become unpopular, families and political leaders want children to be able to learn mask-less — regardless of whether they've been vaccinated. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday that he believes children should not be masked in classrooms, vaccinated or not.

"These kids do not need to be wearing these masks," DeSantis said, though the CDC has said masking is a key strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. On Thursday, Palm Beach County Schools told families masks will be optional when the next school year begins.

In some states, masks in schools are already optional.

"Whether a child wears a mask in school is a decision that should be left only to a student's parents," said South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster earlier this week as he issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school-based mask requirements.

The move was excoriated by the Palmetto State Teachers Association. In a statement, the group said, "many families and staff no longer have a choice for in-person learning if those individuals desire to follow the clear instructions of our public health authorities."

Several districts in Utah are also now allowing parents to simply sign a form to exempt their children from schools' face mask requirements. And, on Thursday, Utah's governor announced a controversial move to end a statewide mask mandate in schools for the last week of the school year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.