Schools Are Figuring Out How To Handle New Mask Guidelines

by Julie Scagell

Kids under 12 are still not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine

This week has been a big one for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing guidelines as it relates to wearing masks and people who are fully vaccinated. The agency changed its COVID-19 safety guidance to say that, with some exceptions, fully vaccinated individuals can be indoors and outdoors without face masks or social distancing, leaving many students and staff members at schools nationwide wondering what this means for them.

The CDC also announced this week that children ages 12 to 15 can begin receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but that won’t do much to impact this school year. So, with many teachers fully vaccinated and middle and elementary school-aged kids not, will schools allow those fully vaccinated to go sans mask?

The answer is, it depends on the school district. For many, the announcement came as a bit of a surprise and left them scrambling to discuss existing and future mask policies in schools. For most (including an email from my kid’s schools this afternoon after our governor lifting our statewide mandate), it doesn’t change much.

“Because our youngest students are still not eligible for the vaccine, the MN Department of Education (MDE) and the MN Department of Health have informed school districts that the Minnesota Safe Learning Plan will remain in place for the remainder of this school year, along with the existing face covering guidance for schools and child care settings,” my children’s school administration said. “This means that masks for indoor events will still be required.”

Other schools are making different choices. According to NPR, the superintendent of schools in Cobb County, Ga issued a statement saying, “In accordance with the new [CDC] guidance, Cobb Schools will no longer require fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask. 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.”

Pfizer began trials on kids aged 12-17 in July of 2020 and just this week the CDC recommended that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine be given to adolescents ages 12-15. Moderna had difficulty finding participants to sign up for its trials but began testing kids under 12 years of age mid-March. Even if the CDC says all age groups can receive the vaccination, it doesn’t mean they will.

Given these updates and parents’ concern over whether to get young kids vaccinated, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement recommending 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.”

The CDC has stated in recent weeks that fully vaccinated adults can gather without masks. But if you’re gathering in situations where some aren’t vaccinated (like young kids), you’re still supposed to wear a mask and social distance.

Things are changing quickly, leaving many parents and young students unsure of what the final few weeks of in-person school will look like but offers hope for a return to school in the fall that looks a bit like old times.