Vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside Illinois school buildings this fall, state officials announced Friday after the Centers for Disease and Prevention relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines for schools.
Chicago schools and health officials, meanwhile, said they were still reviewing their plans for the fall but were “encouraged by [the] flexibility” of the new recommendations, leaving the door open to a lax masking policy when Chicago Public Schools buildings reopen for full-time in-person learning in late August. Federal and state officials left room for each school district to set its own standards.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the updated federal guidelines represent the latest available scientific information for keeping students and staff safe.
“The CDC is right: vaccination is the best preventive strategy. As school board members, parents, teachers and superintendents plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall, we strongly encourage those who are not vaccinated to continue to mask,” Ezike said in a statement.
State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala, who has mandated a return to classrooms next school year, said she is “fully confident in the safety of in-person learning this fall.”
The Chicago Teachers Union, which this week laid out its proposal for the fall return that included an 80% student vaccination goal, said the updated guidance “triggers more questions than answers.”
“Our Black and Brown school communities lie in neighborhoods that have struggled to access vaccinations, at the same time that those neighborhoods have been disproportionately hammered by COVID,” union leadership wrote in a statement.
“While we support the goal of returning every student safely to in-person learning this fall, we are concerned that the vast majority of our students, both under 12 and those 12 and up eligible for shots, remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to catching and transmitting COVID-19, even as the Delta variant continues to spread.”
CPS does not have data on how many of its students are vaccinated, but officials plan to ask students’ status when they return to schools late next month.
The changes come amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, as well as a general decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. But youth inoculations have lagged, and it isn’t clear when vaccines will be available for younger children. Families with siblings of different ages have particularly struggled to plan.
“We’re at a new point in the pandemic that we’re all really excited about,” and so it’s time to update the guidance, said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who leads the CDC task force that prepares recommendations designed to keep Americans safe from COVID-19.
The nation’s top public health agency is not advising schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids. And it’s not offering guidance on how teachers can know which students are vaccinated or how parents will know which teachers are immunized.
That’s probably going to make for some challenging school environments, said Elizabeth Stuart, a John Hopkins University public health professor who has children in elementary and middle schools.
“It would be a very weird dynamic, socially, to have some kids wearing masks and some not. And tracking that? Teachers shouldn’t need to be keeping track of which kids should have masks on,” she said.
In Chicago, the district plans to launch running vaccination sites for students and their families next week.
Though the city still has its lowest COVID-19 rates and casualties since widespread testing became available last year, infections have been rising the past couple weeks as new vaccinations wane. And the district has a tough task this summer reconnecting with the 75% of CPS students who didn’t return to in-person learning in the spring.
Another potential headache: Schools should continue to space kids — and their desks — 3 feet apart in classrooms, the CDC says. But the agency emphasized that spacing should not be an obstacle to getting kids back in schools. And it said distancing is not required among fully vaccinated students or staff.
CPS kept its 6-foot spacing requirement when federal and state officials lowered their guidance to 3 feet last school year, but in an email to parents this week the district appeared open to a change. At many cramped CPS schools it might be impossible to fully reopen with farther social distancing requirements.
All of this may prove hard to implement, and that’s why CDC is advising schools to make decisions that make the most sense, Sauber-Schatz said.
The biggest questions will be at middle schools where some students are eligible for shots and others aren’t. If sorting vaccinated and unvaccinated students proves too burdensome, administrators might choose to just keep a masking policy in place for everyone.
“The guidance is really written to allow flexibility at the local level,” Sauber-Schatz said.
Indeed, in some of the nation’s largest school districts, widespread mask-wearing is expected to continue this fall. In Detroit’s public schools, everyone will be required to wear a mask unless everyone in the classroom has been vaccinated. Philadelphia will require all public school students and staff to wear masks inside buildings, even if they have been vaccinated. But masks won’t be mandated in Houston schools.
What about requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of school attendance? That’s commonly done across the country to prevent spread of measles and other diseases.
The CDC has repeatedly praised such requirements, but the agency on Friday didn’t recommend that measure because it is considered a state and local policy decision, CDC officials said.
Chicago’s Board of Education recently approved a measure that would allow CPS officials to require eligible students get a COVID-19 shot like other mandatory vaccinations, but the district has not yet implemented that mandate.
Early in the pandemic, health officials worried schools might become coronavirus cauldrons that spark community outbreaks. But studies have shown that schools often see less transmission than the surrounding community when certain prevention measures are followed.
The new guidance is the latest revision to advice the CDC began making to schools last year.
In March, the CDC stopped recommending that children and their desks be spaced 6 feet apart, shrinking the distance to 3 feet, and dropped its call for use of plastic shields.
In May, the agency said Americans in general don’t have to be as cautious about masks and distancing outdoors, and that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most situations. That change was incorporated into updated guidance for summer camps — and now, schools.
The new schools guidance says:
o No one at schools needs to wear masks at recess or in most other outdoor situations. However, unvaccinated people are advised to wear masks if they are in a crowd for an extended period of time, like in the stands at a football game.
o Ventilation and handwashing continue to be important. Students and staff also should stay home when they are sick.
o Testing remains an important way to prevent outbreaks. But the CDC also says people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in such screening.
o Separating students into smaller groups, or cohorts, continues to be a good way to help reduce spread of the virus. But the CDC discouraged putting vaccinated and unvaccinated kids in separate groups, saying schools shouldn’t stigmatize any group or perpetuate academic, racial or other tracking.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, called the new CDC guidance “an important roadmap for reducing the risk of COVID-19 in schools.”
She added: “Schools should be consistently and rigorously employing all the recommended mitigation strategies, including requiring masks in all settings where there are unvaccinated individuals present, and ensuring adequate ventilation, handwashing, and cleaning.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona pledged to work with schools to help them get kids back into classrooms.
“We know that in-person learning offers vital opportunities for all students to develop healthy, nurturing relationships with educators and peers, and that students receive essential supports in school for their social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and academic success,” he said in a statement.
Nader Issa is a Sun-Times staff reporter. Mike Stobbe and Collin Binkley are reporters for the Associated Press.