Everything Parents Need To Know About the Latest CDC Mask Guidance in Schools

The CDC recently eased mask guidance for the majority of Americans. Here's how the changing recommendations affect students, teachers, and school staff around the country.

With its current mask guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is giving parents some clarity on the safest practices for in-person learning. The organization previously recommended that all students and staff in grades K through 12 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. But now recommendations vary based on factors like hospital capacity in a given community.

Here's what parents need to know about the latest masking guidelines for students, teachers, staff, and school visitors.

CDC's Mask Guidelines for Vaccinated and Unvaccinated People

In February 2022, the CDC changed its mask guidance to reflect declining coronavirus cases. Because many people have been vaccinated or infected, there's less risk of severe disease in a community, and health care systems are becoming less strained.

The CDC divided each American county based on community level (low, medium, or high). The levels are determined based on "hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area," says the CDC. People can check out this map to see their local status.

If you're located in a low-level community, you don't need to wear masks indoors, but you can if you'd like the extra protection. For medium-level communities, the CDC recommends that high-risk or immunocompromised people speak with their health care provider about wearing a mask; also, if you're in contact with a high-risk individual, "consider testing yourself for infection before you get together and wearing a mask when indoors with them," says the organization. People in high-level communities should wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces. These new guidelines apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

As of February 28, 2022, about 70 percent of the country can drop face mask mandates per these new recommendations. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says the guidelines could change in the future, depending on how the pandemic evolves.

The CDC Decision on Masks in Schools

The CDC community level guidance also applies to K-12 schools. This means students, staff, teachers, and visitors don't need to wear masks if they're located in an area with low or medium community levels. Those in high-level communities should mask up indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Even so, school districts can make their own calls about masking guidance, as long as they state doesn't have universal mask mandates.

"We've been reviewing the data on COVID illness in children for two years of a pandemic. And we have seen that although children can get infected and can get sick with COVID, they're more likely to have asymptomatic or mild infections," said Greta Massetti, Ph.D, of the COVID-19 incident management team, in a February 25 briefing. She adds that children generally have a lower risk for severe illness. "For that reason, we're recommending that schools use the same guidance that we are recommending in general community settings, which is that we are recommending people wear a mask in high levels of COVID 19."

For the most part, children have been spared from the two most severe COVID-19 outcomes: hospitalization and death. Kids have made up fewer than 5 percent of the total COVID-19 hospitalizations and less than 0.3 percent of the total COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. since the pandemic began.

But they are not immune to COVID-19. As of February 28, 2022, about 12.5 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data compiled by the AAP and Children's Hospital Association. A study published in February 2021 found that almost half of children who get COVID-19 experience "long COVID" or lasting symptoms. Plus, children under 5 years old aren't eligible for vaccination yet. Given this information, it's no wonder that parents nationwide have mixed feeling about these new guidelines.

An image of girls wearing masks to school.
Getty Images.

How to Encourage Kids to Wear Masks

As a parent of a toddler, Dr. Cherian understands that not all children enjoy wearing masks. "We found that making the mask 'fun' did the trick," he says. "There are many ways to do this that can be a reflection of your own child's likes and dislikes. For example, our son really enjoys Captain America and superhero costumes, so when we introduced masks to him as a 2.5-year-old, we talked about the mask being his superhero mask that protected him against COVID."

Dr. Cherian adds that he and his wife have continued to wear masks to model behavior for their son. He also suggests parents continue to wear masks inside at work, regardless of the company policy or their vaccination status, to reduce their risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to an unvaccinated child.

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