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What the Updated CDC Mask Guidance Means for K-12 Students

student masked in school

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Key Takeaways

  • The CDC reversed its previous recommendations, now saying students should wear masks indoors at school.
  • The move is meant to protect students as well as staff and community members as new, highly contagious variants drive cases in unvaccinated people nationwide.
  • Some states have prohibited mask mandates in schools and will not follow CDC guidelines under current legislation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday updated its guidance for mask use, recommending all students, teachers, and staff returning to K-12 schools to wear masks indoors even if they are vaccinated.

The guidance for schools come as the agency urges people in COVID-19 hotspots to resume wearing masks in public indoor settings.

In May, the CDC said fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors and outdoors. Since then, COVID-19 variants like Delta have driven up cases and vaccination rate has nearly plateaued. Daily new cases have almost quadrupled in July, and 57.6% of Americans older than 12 years are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

While children are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19, young people infected with COVID-19 can still transmit the disease to those they interact with. With the rise in cases, experts recommend taking precautions to limit disease spread within schools and without.

“Kids are mobile—they get together among themselves, they go home and expose their parents and can expose grandparents or relatives,” Adrian Popp, MD, chair of infection control at Huntington Hospital, tells Verywell. “That’s the way this pandemic can kind of gain state.”

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s leading group of pediatricians, recommended that schools require masks for all students over 2 years old, staff and teachers regardless of vaccination status. The group called for a “layered approach,” encouraging teens who are eligible to be vaccinated and urging schools to instate good ventilation and sanitation practices, in addition to mask use.

“We recommend universal masking in schools because there are still medical and social complications from contracting COVID, even though the risk of dying may be lower in children,” Steph Lee, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and preventative medicine specialist at Pennsylvania State Health and spokesperson for the AAP, tells Verywell in an email.

“There is also the concern that new variants may be more easily spread among children and adolescents. Since everyone under 12 is still not eligible for a COVID vaccine, mask wearing is essential to protect all kids from getting sick and spreading the virus,” Lee says.

What This Means For You

With the uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide, the CDC is recommending people who live in areas with many cases wear masks for indoor activities, regardless of vaccination status. Children, who are at relatively lower risk of serious illness from COVID-19, are still able to transmit the virus to more susceptible peers and adults. For more information about the relative risk in your county or state, you can see the level of viral transmission using the CDC’s tracker.

Protecting Children From COVID-19

The highly transmissible Delta variant is now responsible for the majority of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people in the United States. It has caused some breakthrough infections even among vaccinated individuals.

Children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, remain susceptible to infection without the immune support conferred by vaccines. Clinical trials for vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are currently underway.

At least 426 children under age 16 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the CDC. At least 294 of them were under 12.

"I think we fall into this flawed thinking of saying that only 400 of the 600,000 deaths from COVID-19 have been in children," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week while testifying in a Senate committee hearing. "Children are not supposed to die."

In addition to the risk of death and transmitting the disease to loved ones and community members, children who become sick with COVID-19 are at risk of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. The rare condition can cause inflammation in more than two body systems, such as the heart and lungs, and can occur after even mild cases of COVID-19.

Without widespread vaccination in this population, Popp says precautions like mask-wearing will help prevent viral transmission, especially to those who are more vulnerable to severe illness.

“It's not only about your own person, but it's also your loved ones, your neighbors, your friends, and so forth. One has to look at the whole picture,” Popp says.

Operating on a State-by-State Basis

In some states, governors have banned public schools from mandating masks on their campuses. The South Carolina Department of Education said yesterday that while it can encourage mask use, it cannot require them, due to recently passed legislation in the state.

In other states, public schools required mask use on campus before the revised CDC guidance. California, for instance, said earlier this month that it will continue to mandate masks, especially because schools in the state may not all be able to accommodate the CDC’s recommended three feet of space between students.

Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, says that local health departments and school districts should make informed decisions about mitigation strategies, like masking and promoting social distancing, based on local cases and medical advice.

“People have to understand that information changes, and that what was appropriate even a month ago may not be appropriate today,” Glatt tells Verywell. “That’s not a bad thing,”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. July 28, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. Updated July 27, 2021.