New normal? Delta spike drives CDC’s call for another masked school year

'Children should return to full-time in-person learning in fall with proper prevention strategies in place,' CDC director says
By: | July 28, 2021
Mask mandates will be far more common in elementary schools than in the higher grades in the 2021-22 school year.Mask mandates will be far more common in elementary schools than in the higher grades in the 2021-22 school year.

All students and staff—regardless of age or vaccination status—should keep wearing masks as the delta variant and vaccine hesitancy fuel a summer COVID spike, the CDC recommended Tuesday.

It was only two weeks ago that the CDC said fully vaccinated students and staff no longer had to wear masks inside schools. But just a week later, the American Academy of Pediatrics said everyone in schools should wear masks and that districts would have to consider vaccine mandates.

On Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the delta variant shows every day “its willingness to outsmart us” as the first day of school approaches.

“Everyone in K-12 schools should wear masks indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status,” Walensky said. “Children should return to full-time in-person learning in fall with proper prevention strategies in place.”

When the CDC released its earlier school guidance, on 7/9, the delta variant was less prominent and public health officials were hoping that more than 30% percent of 12- to 17-year-olds would have been vaccinated by now, Walensky said.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten supported the new guidance.

“We continue to be concerned about this variant, but our No. 1 priority remains a safe in-person school year in schools that can stay open,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Given the new evidence, that means requiring everyone in school buildings to wear masks, and that’s what we’ll work with our school communities to do.”

Outside schools, the agency urged even vaccinated Americans to resume wearing masks indoors in parts of the country with high infection rates. While most deaths, hospitalization, cases and transmissions are still occurring among the unvaccinated, new research has shown that vaccinated people are more likely to spread the highly contagious delta variant than earlier strains of COVID.

Vaccines, however, continue to block serious illness and death, she said.

“This moment, and the associated illness, suffering and death, could have been avoided with higher vaccine coverage in this country,” said Walensky who later added that the CDC would have no jurisdiction to issue any vaccine mandates.

More masks mandates return

Already this week, New Mexico mandated masks for all staff and students in elementary schools, and for unvaccinated staff and students in secondary schools.

And the Mississippi Association of Educators union on Monday urged the state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, to reconsider his opposition to school mask mandates.

“While we hoped the 2021-2022 school year would look a lot more like what we’re used to than what we’ve been forced to become accustomed to, we believe it is in the best interest of public school students, educators, and their families that a statewide K-12 mask mandate be implemented as soon as possible,” the union wrote in a letter to Reeves.

“It is imperative that schools see state-led intervention beyond advising mask-wearing among unvaccinated students and educators. This policy has the potential to create more problems than it solves,” the union wrote. “Simply put: It is unfair to ask educators to become their school’s vaccination police when putting on a mask will help keep the entire school community safe and healthy.”

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday urged schools this week to require all students under 12 to wear masks in classrooms. He also recommended that all unvaccinated students and adults wear masks inside.

Kentucky will spend $134 million in federal funding to provide a free testing program to public and private schools. All staff and students are eligible.

“How we make decisions has to come from one simple place: What gives us the best chance to have our kids in school the maximum number of days in the midst of a pandemic?” Beshear said in a statement. “That is our North Star.”

In Maryland, Prince George’s County Public Schools has issued a districtwide mask mandate, WUSA9.com reported. And Peoria Public Schools in Illinois will require everyone to wear masks when school starts. Officials there said the school boarded decided to put safety first, WEEK.com reported.

New York City teachers on Monday were ordered to get fully vaccinated by the first day of school, Sept. 13, or be test for COVID weekly.

In Ohio, Republic Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday that he will not mandate masks in schools despite the state’s health department’s strongly worded recommendations for unvaccinated students, WKYC.com reported.

DeWine, who urged all eligible Ohioans to get vaccinated, said a new state law has stripped him of the authority to mandate masks, which, he added, prevented the spread of COVID in schools in 2020-21, according to WKYC.com.

“If you want your child to play sports, not being vaccinated and not wearing a mask in school is a recipe for that not to happen or for that to certainly potentially be interrupted,” DeWine said, according to the website.