The CDC has changed its guidance on masks in schools. Here's what parents need to know—and why an expert thinks the organization made the right call.

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated mask guidelines Tuesday, and it's giving parents some clarity on the safest practices for resuming in-person learning.

The CDC, which earlier this month suggested unvaccinated children ages 2 and up wear masks, is now recommending that all students in grades K through 12 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The organization cited the more transmissible Delta variant, which accounts for the majority of the cases in the U.S., as a primary driver for the change.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued similar guidelines for schools on Monday, July 19.

CDC's New Mask Guidelines for Vaccinated People

Several places throughout the U.S. may see a return of indoor mask mandates anyway. The CDC also recommends that individuals in areas with "substantial" or "high" transmission of COVID-19 wear masks indoors, whether they are vaccinated or not. (Families can check information on their area on the CDC's website.) In the U.S., 46 percent of counties are classified as "high-transmission" zones, and 17 percent are experiencing substantial transmission. High-transmission areas include every county in Louisiana and Arkansas; nearly every county in Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri; and all but one county in Florida (Glades County, which has a "substantial transmission"). Substantial transmission areas include New York City and counties across California, among others.

The new guidelines come as COVID-19 cases are spiking around the country. The CDC says its current rolling seven-day average is more than 40,000 cases, a nearly 47 percent increase from the previous rolling average. Though that number is 84 percent lower than the peak of 254,052 noted on January 10, it's a 250 percent increase from the 11,480 observed on June 19.

On May 13, the CDC announced that vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks indoors except when mandated by local ordinances. But many establishments have not verified vaccine status and instead relied on an honor system.

The CDC reports that 66.6 percent of people in the U.S. over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Transmission is primarily occurring among unvaccinated people as fully vaccinated people remain a very small percentage of transmission.

The CDC Decision on Masks in Schools

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 July 22, 4.13 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.

Many school districts had already announced they planned to make all students mask when they returned to the classrooms this fall, including Chicago and Atlanta. But others, like Arkansas, Vermont, Arizona, and Texas, have enacted legislation barring school districts from mandating masks, according to a CNN analysis.

Vivek Cherian, M.D., an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System, agrees with the CDC's recommendations. "Given that a large part of the K-12 population is unvaccinated, it is absolutely vital for schools to keep mask mandates in place," Dr. Cherian says. "This is not a question of body autonomy, but rather a responsibility to keep our children—especially those that don't have the vaccine available to them as yet—safe and provide them the best odds against contracting COVID."

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.