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What Mask Mandate Changes Mean for Kids

A black and white portrait of a young girl wearing a face mask; she is framed at the bottom with lots of black wall space behind her.

Thanos Pal/Unsplash

Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its COVID-19 guidance to say that fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear masks in most situations.
  • The update will not change things for a large population of unvaccinated individuals: children. For now, kids should continue wearing masks in most settings.
  • The new guidelines are making it tricky for families of mixed vaccination status to know what to do about mask-wearing. Families may decide to continue wearing masks to encourage younger family members to do so.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID-19 guidance to say that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a face mask in most situations, it meant that for nearly 125 Americans, life is starting to feel a little more "back to normal."

While fully vaccinated adults are closer to a life without social distancing, masks, and the fear of COVID-19, those under the age of 12 are left out. The future of an approved COVID vaccine for kids remains hazy, though clinical trials for the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine in young children are currently underway.

For the time being, experts from the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommend that kids from age two to 11 continue to wear face masks in most situations. Navigating the at-odds guidance will be tricky for families of mixed vaccination status. Here's what parents need to know.

When Should Kids Mask Up?

On May 19, Yvonne A. Maldonado, MD, FAAP, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases, said in a statement on HealthyChildren.org that children under the age of 12 should continue to wear face masks in most situations.

The statement stipulated that while children should still engage in their school and community activities like sports or religious services, they should continue to wear masks indoors if:

  • They are around unvaccinated people
  • They are with people who do not live with them

Kids can go without masks outdoors if:

  • They are with family members (such as going for a bike ride or walk)
  • They are at a small gathering with fully vaccinated family and friends
  • They are taking part in activities that provide plenty of social distance (such as golf or singles tennis)

What Parents Can Do

Parents know that they need to keep their children safe until COVID vaccines are available, but that doesn't mean it's easy to explain to kids that they need to keep wearing a face mask when the rest of the world is finally taking theirs off.

Katherine Hoops, MD, MPH, an Assistant Professor of pediatric critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Verywell that for parents, setting a good example could be key to keeping kids in masks until they can be vaccinated. That said, she admits that it might be challenging.

"It's hard. It can be a hard sell to children that may be the only people in the household that have to continue to wear masks," says Hoops. "One thing that families can consider is that parents and older children can continue to model good mask behavior to help younger children understand and continue to stay safe."

Katherine Hoops, MD, MPH

We can't expect our children to be better than we are. Even as we encourage them to keep their masks on, we need to build in breaks when necessary.

— Katherine Hoops, MD, MPH

Talking with children about the importance of keeping others safe can also help encourage them to stay the course and keep their masks on. "Each family should make an individual plan to keep their family safe, and kids know what to expect," says Hoops.

With more retailers lifting mask restrictions and relying on the honor system for requiring masks for non-vaccinated people, kids (and adults, for that matter) are likely to have questions about the new rules. It might help alleviate some of the confusion if families stay masked up together until the youngest members are fully vaccinated.

For Summer Fun, Transmission Rates Matter

As children go off to take part in their summer activities, Hoops says that leadership at places like summer camps and other programs will have to consider risk factors like community transmission rates when deciding whether to require masks outside.

"There's not one single best answer here," says Hoops. "In an area where there's a high rate of transmission, it's possible that they'll continue to recommend wearing masks even for outdoor activity. Each group will have to make decisions that are best for their local area."

Give Kids a Break

While Hoops emphasizes the necessity of face masks for children, she also says that it's important for parents to find ways to let their kids be kids.

"Adults aren't perfect mask wearers either," says Hoops. "We can't expect our children to be better than we are. Even as we encourage them to keep their masks on, we need to build in breaks when necessary. It can be done safely."

What This Means For You

Until children can be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, face masks will continue to be an important tool for keeping everyone safe. That said, with mask requirements dropping for vaccinated people, families might find it challenging to convince their kids to keep their masks on. If your family is of mixed vaccination status, you can limit confusion and encourage your kids to think of others by continuing to mask up with them until vaccines are approved.

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 (CDC). When you've been fully vaccinated. Updated May 16, 2021.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Does my unvaccinated child still have to wear a face mask when the rest of the family doesn't? Updated May 19, 2021.