The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is prioritizing the reopening of in-person classes for the fall, according to new guidelines the agency released on Friday. The main way that schools can make sure reopening is safe is through vaccination, according to the CDC.
Teachers and students who haven’t been vaccinated will have to wear masks, but those who have gotten their shot can go mask-free.
“Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority,” according to the new CDC guidelines.
“This a big moment,” Richard Besser, a former acting director of the CDC, told the New York Times. “It’s also a recognition that there are real costs to keeping children at home, to keeping them out of school, that school is so important in terms of children’s socialization and development and it provides other supports as well.”
Crucially, the CDC recommends that schools space students out by at least three feet in the classroom. But if their infrastructure doesn’t allow for physical distancing, they should open anyway. Still, schools should try to implement multiple layers of precautions, including ventilation, COVID screening, and frequent hand-washing.
Students and bus drivers are encouraged to wear masks on the bus ride to school, no matter their vaccination status. But kids and adults who are fully vaccinated — who are two weeks after their last dose — do not need to. Unvaccinated people should wear masks indoors, but in most outdoor settings, such as recess, they can take their masks off.
“We do allow for flexibility in our guidance,” Erin Sauber-Schatz, a member of the CDC COVID response team who helped write the guidelines, told ABC. “This is really about protecting the people who are either not yet eligible for vaccine due to their age, or people who are not yet fully vaccinated,” she added. “The message is really, if your child is eligible for vaccine, the time to get vaccinated is now.”
Time is running out to get vaccinated before school starts. But children under age 12 are still unable to get the COVID vaccine. Kids aged 12 and up can receive the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses with three weeks in between.
Schools and state and local governments do not have to follow the CDC guidelines — Arizona, for example, has already prohibited schools from requiring masks — but they are influential. “For the first time, I really think they hit it on the nose,” Benjamin Linas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University, told the Times. “I think it’s science-based and right on the mark…. I don’t want to send my 11-year-old to school without a mask yet, because Delta is out there,” he said. “And even if she’s not going to get severe COVID from Delta, I’m not ready to take that risk.”