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School may be out for summer, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still in session. The agency released updated guidance July 9 that promotes in-person learning when K-12 students return in the fall, and relaxed mask recommendations for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Children and adolescents benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person school in the fall of 2021 is a priority,” the July 9 CDC statement reads.
Why now? The CDC cites “widespread availability of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for people aged 12 and older [as well as] recent reductions in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
Masks are still recommended for anyone aged 2 years or older, including students, who is not vaccinated. “While fewer children have been sick with COVID-19 compared with adults, children can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, can get sick from COVID-19, can spread the virus to others, and can have severe outcomes,” the CDC statement notes.
Together but Apart
The federal agency still calls for at least three feet between student desks — down from the six feet recommended prior to March 2021.
“Using a distance of at least 3 feet between students in classrooms could provide a feasible definition of physical distancing so long as other prevention strategies are maximized,” the agency notes on its updated Science Brief addressing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in schools.
This guidance continues calls for a layered approach to COVID-19 prevention, including the familiar strategies such as proper ventilation, hand hygiene, and staying home if symptomatic or when exposed to someone who likely has COVID-19.
A Lesson in Controversy
Like previous moves the CDC has taken that relax their COVID-19 guidance, this one is not without controversy. On Twitter, for example, reactions to the CDC’s post about the new guidance ranged from outrage to applause.
Becky Cunningham, a mother with two children, for example, questioned how the guidance for the unvaccinated to keep wearing masks in schools will be enforced. “Hard to trust that folks will just do the right thing & follow the rules/be honest!!” she tweeted.
Can someone please help our schools now figure out how to police whether a K-12 student or staff member has been vaccinated? Hard to trust that folks will just do the right thing & follow the rules/be honest!!
— Becky Cunningham (@beckcunningham) July 9, 2021
Another tweet raised the issue of enforcing the honor system for mask wearing. Ana Mercedes appeared to back the new guidance: “That’s great since my 17yr old is vaccinated.”
That’s great since my 17yr old is vaccinated.
How do we know who is vaccaibted or not ?
My school district is not requiring the vaccine for teachers and staff.
Please don’t say Honor System.
— Ana Mercedes💙🇵🇷#VegasStrong (@mercedesana88) July 9, 2021
Other parents of children with underlying medical conditions or below the 12-year-old minimum age for vaccination were more concerned.
For example, “Eve” tweeted that the CDC’s new guidance “is ridiculously irresponsible.”
This is ridiculously irresponsible. What about all the kidsnundwe 12. Who can not be vaccinated yet? My 3 kids all under 12. 2 of them have asthma. Their school is no longer requiring mask or social distancing and frequent hand washing is only "recommended"!
— Eve (@Eve45209569) July 9, 2021
The CDC is not calling for proof of vaccination for teachers or students. Nor does the agency specifically outline how schools can determine which students are vaccinated and which are not, or how to enforce mask wearing among the unvaccinated.
The CDC, instead, said it is providing enough flexibility for local districts and schools to adapt the guidance as needed based on local conditions.
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.