The universal use of masks in school will continue to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at a time when young kids cannot get the vaccines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said in new interim guidelines. So, when kids go back to school in the fall, they should wear face masks—as should all staff whether or not they’re fully vaccinated, the organization explained.
When possible, children should go back to school in person, the AAP guidelines state. “Remote learning highlighted inequities in education, was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages, and exacerbated the mental health crisis among children and adolescents,” the organization said. “The AAP believes that, at this point in the pandemic, given what we know about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention measures are used, together with the availability of effective vaccines for those age 12 years and up, that the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances.”
When those correct safety protocols are followed, it’s possible to open schools without significantly increasing the spread of COVID-19. Those safety procedures include making sure that all school staff who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine do so, and ensuring that all students over the age of 2 and all staff wear a face mask at school.
The AAP said it made the choice to recommend the universal use of masks in school settings for several crucial reasons. For one thing, many students can’t yet get vaccinated against COVID-19 because there is no vaccine available to people under the age of 12 in the U.S. right now. The AAP also cited worries about the potentially low vaccination rates in the surrounding community and the possible spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants as reasons for the mask recommendation.
For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors in school settings while fully vaccinated people do not need to wear them. But the AAP notes that it may be difficult to monitor people’s vaccination statuses and, therefore, it could be challenging to enforce that rule correctly.
When you’re dealing with a “substantial proportion of the population that is unvaccinated,” Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Kate Bolduan on CNN’s At This Hour, “you really want to go the extra step, the extra mile to make sure that there is not a lot of transmission—even breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals.” For that reason, Dr. Fauci said the recommendations were a ”reasonable thing to do.”
More mask requirements may not exactly be an exciting prospect. But the good news is that vaccines for those 12 and under are on the horizon—and may be available as soon as this winter. Vaccinating kids will be an important step in protecting them and their families as well as containing the pandemic. But until that happens, masks will continue to be routine.