Here's what parents need to know about the CDC mask guidance for schools—and why an expert thinks the organization made the right call.
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With its current mask guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is giving parents some clarity on the safest practices for resuming in-person learning. The CDC recommends that all students in grades K through 12 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. All staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools should also mask up. Here's what parents need to know about these guidelines.

CDC's Mask Guidelines for Vaccinated and Unvaccinated People

Several places throughout the U.S. may see a return of indoor mask mandates. The CDC recommends that all unvaccinated people ages 2 and up wear masks in indoor public settings. Also, vaccinated individuals in areas with "substantial" or "high" transmission of COVID-19 should wear masks indoors, whether they are vaccinated or not. (Families can check information on their area on the CDC's website.)

The guidelines stay strong as COVID-19 cases are spiking around the country, thanks to the transmissible Omicron variant.

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 January 19, 9.4 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."

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