This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shifted mask guidelines, saying fully vaccinated people can safely ditch masks in most settings. Now, schools are navigating this guidance as they plan to reopen classrooms for in-person learning in the fall.
According to Anthony Fauci, MD, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, it’s possible for middle schools and high schools to go maskless in the fall if children are fully vaccinated. However, the decision will ultimately depend on local authorities, which means that masking guidelines will vary across different states and school districts.
In states like Texas and Iowa, governors have banned public schools from mandating masks on their campuses. Meanwhile, other school districts like those in Michigan are likely to continue making masks mandatory indoors. Amid varied approaches to masking, schools will have to find a way to reopen safely.
Now that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance except in certain circumstances, the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 years old is potentially a gamechanger. However, experts say we don't have enough data yet to determine how schools should operate in the fall.
“It is too early to tell whether schools in the fall can open in-person safely in the absence of masks,” Thomas Murray, MD, PhD, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine and assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell.
Being fully vaccinated provides great protection against COVID-19, but it’s not—and should not be—the only decisive factor to go maskless.
“Right now, middle schoolers and high schoolers are able to be vaccinated, and they should do that,” Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Verywell. “If they are vaccinated, then yes, they can ditch the mask. But barring that, if there is significant community transmission of the virus, school administrators are taking a big risk to go maskless.”
According to Murray, the following should be considered when making the decision to go maskless in the fall:
“I would suggest that schools—regardless of masks—invest in air purifiers that filter the air using proven technologies in the classrooms and common areas,” Gronvall says. “SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through the air.”
For instance, schools can invest in high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems to enhance air cleaning. HEPA filters are about 99.97% efficient at capturing viral particles of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to a report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, improving ventilation in schools is a cost-effective public health measure that can improve indoor air quality and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“High vaccination rates and very low levels of community transition will increase the probability of school without masks,” Murray says. “It will be important to monitor state and national guidelines for vaccinated students as these may evolve as the summer progresses and we learn more information about vaccine efficacy in younger adolescents.”
About 3.5 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 years old have already been vaccinated, but schools will need higher vaccination rates if they are to reopen safely without masks. It’s possible that in-person schooling may resume with students of mixed vaccination status, which poses the risk of COVID-19 infection and spread.
“It is well described that children can be infected and spread COVID-19 even without showing any signs or symptoms of disease,” Murray says. “If someone comes to school infected and does not wear a mask and spends time indoors in close contact with another unmasked, unvaccinated child, there is a real potential for COVID-19 spread.”
Although fewer than 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States were among children aged 5 to 17 years old, they are still capable of getting infected and spreading the virus to other people, including their classmates and family members. Research shows that living with a child who attends in-person schooling increases the household risk of COVID-19-related outcomes.
“Everyone thinks that kids are low risk, and that is true in comparison to adults, but kids do get sick, do get hospitalized, and we don’t know what the long term effects of infection are on kids,” Gronvall says. “I would urge people to protect their kids and get the safe and effective vaccines available.”
“The best thing parents can do for their kids is get them vaccinated,” Gronvall says. “Give their immune systems a fighting chance to protect them against this horrible virus. Around the world, so many parents do not have this option—there are no vaccines available even for adults. That’s another issue, but I would urge parents to count their blessings and protect their kids with the means available.”
At present, only children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old are able to get vaccinated, but both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have already begun clinical trials testing vaccine efficacy in children as young as 6 months old.
“For those children not old enough to receive the vaccine, masking and physical distancing, especially during activities such as eating, remain some of the most effective mitigation strategies for indoor activities,” Murray says.
Parents can still send their fully vaccinated children to school wearing masks, not only for an additional layer of protection against COVID-19, but to avoid other respiratory diseases as well. Frequent hand-washing also remains an important safety measure.
“Finally, things are continuing to change,” Murray says. “Parents should continue to monitor local levels of disease and guidance from local, state, and national agencies over the summer to best prepare for a safe return to school.”
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.