CDC recommends masks stay on in schools

WASHINGTON — Even as the Biden administration is preparing to roll out coronavirus vaccines for children as young as 5, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, indicated on Wednesday morning that her agency would not be changing its guidance that all teachers, students and staff wear masks in schools.

“As we head into these winter months, we know we cannot be complacent,” Walensky said during a briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team. She made clear that dropping mask mandates in schools would constitute precisely such an act of complacency, pointing to a recent study that found schools without mask mandates were 3.7 times more likely to experience a coronavirus outbreak than schools where mask wearing was required.

“So right now, we’re going to continue to recommend masks in all schools, for all people in those schools,” Walensky said.

Wednesday’s briefing came as the Biden administration announced initial plans to ensure vaccines are ready to be administered to the 28 million American children between the ages of 5 and 11. Although federal regulators have not yet approved a vaccine for that cohort, approval is expected by the end of October. While vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness and the spread of the coronavirus, they are not perfect. Also, it’s unclear just how many parents will immunize their children — or whether school districts will require such immunizations.

Fifth Grader Utibe Edet in a hallway at Bielefield Elementary School in Middletown, CT. Masks are required at the school. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Fifth grader Utibe Edet at Bielefield Elementary School in Middletown, Conn., where masks are required. (Stan Godlewski for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Masking in schools has become an intense issue of political debate since August and September, when children returned to classes for a third academic year marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Republican pro-Trump governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas mounted a strenuous resistance to mask mandates, even though masking in schools appears to offer an added layer of protection against the spread of the coronavirus.

The rise of the Delta variant seemed to argue in favor of masking because the variant is much more transmissible than earlier iterations of the virus. “In the era of Delta, children get infected as readily as adults do, and they transmit the infection as readily as adults do,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top science adviser, said at Wednesday’s briefing.

Some educators and epidemiologists have criticized mask wearing in schools, arguing that evidence for the controversial intervention is not as strong as proponents like Walensky have said.

Others endorse the measure but say it is important to indicate when children can finally take off their masks. “Masks in schools were meant to be a temporary measure. It is good policy and practice to establish off-ramps for interventions that aren’t meant to be permanent,” wrote Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo on Twitter.

“So many parents I talk to ask, ‘When does it end?’” Nuzzo went on to say. “We should be able to answer what conditions would enable an end.”

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