The CDC released new guidance on Friday that pushes all schools in the US to fully reopen in the fall and stresses that students and teachers don't need to wear masks if they are fully vaccinated.
In a significant departure from the CDC's generally cautious approach to schools throughout most of the coronavirus pandemic, the revised guidance emphasizes the importance of in-person learning, regardless of whether schools could implement all the steps recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In May, the agency had recommended the use of masks for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. But the new guidance says only teachers, students, and staff who are not fully vaccinated and who are indoors should wear masks.
Vaccines have been authorized in the US for people ages 12 and older.
In general, no one needs to wear masks outside and while participating in most outdoor activities, recess, and physical education, the CDC said, since the risk of transmission is significantly lower.
The debate around reopening schools during the pandemic became a political and cultural flashpoint as scientists slowly learned more about the risks of viral transmission in schools. Many students, parents, and teachers felt the toll of virtual learning even as several teachers unions resisted reopening efforts.
The CDC acknowledged Friday that while schools have had COVID-19 outbreaks, multiple studies have shown that transmission rates in school settings are typically lower or similar to those in the community when appropriate prevention strategies — like masking and physical distancing — are in place.
The guidance also stresses that schools should take a leading role in promoting vaccination among eligible students, teachers, staff, and household members, calling it "one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations."
The new guidance comes at a time when the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading and children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine in the US. The agency recommended using multiple prevention strategies consistently for schools that serve children younger than 12.
The agency reiterated its earlier recommendation that there should be at least 3 feet of physical distance in classrooms, but added that if schools could not fully reopen while maintaining that distance, then they could substitute it with other preventative steps like indoor masking.
The CDC guidance added that schools may be required to implement universal masking requirements irrespective of vaccination status if their student populations are not eligible for vaccination, if there are significant outbreaks in the community, if they are unable to monitor the vaccination status of their students or staff, if they have low vaccination rates, or if the school community says they will not participate in in-person learning unless masking is required.
On Friday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged the importance of getting kids back in classrooms.
"We know that in-person learning offers vital opportunities for all students to develop healthy, nurturing relationships with educators and peers, and that students receive essential supports in school for their social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and academic success," Cardona said in a statement to the Associated Press.