Schools forge ahead without CDC guidance, some leaning away from masks

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(NEW YORK) — As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works on federal guidance for masking in schools, states have begun to take matters into their own hands, pushing ahead and leaning away from masks for the fall.

The result — a patchwork of different policies depending on what state Americans live in, or even down to which district their kids are enrolled in — comes on the heels of a chaotic school year that’s finally coming to a close. Parents and students are now eagerly looking to the fall as a time for more stability and, because of vaccines, a return to full-time, in-person school with far less rules.

But depending on where Americans live, it will be several weeks before it’s clear just what the return to school will look like.

In some states, like New York, new statewide guidance allows districts to decide whether students should wear masks outdoors, while maintaining a mask mandate indoors for the rest of the school year. New York is forging ahead because it has one of the lowest positive test rates in the country and 68% of adults have had at least one shot, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

Come fall, Cuomo said the state would be more prepared to recommend dropping the school mask mandate indoors.

In conversations with the CDC, the agency told New York health officials that it was “not advisable” to let students or staff drop their masks indoors this year, and that the CDC is still “several weeks” away from making a nationwide decision on school guidance, Cuomo said.

In the meantime, states are figuring it out depending on case rates, vaccinations, and in some cases, politics.

In New Jersey, schools will likely require masks for students and staff in the fall, but New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he’s keeping an open mind.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district has also kept mask rules for everyone indoors and outdoors, and plans to keep it that way until the vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Adminisration and mandated by health authorities, said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner.

On the other end of the spectrum, states like Texas and Iowa have decided to ban mask mandates in school regardless of vaccination status. In Florida, the education commissioner has urged superintendents throughout the state to drop mask mandates on a district-by-district basis.

The patchwork of guidance comes as states are interpreting the virus’ risk to children up against the value of a “normal” school year.

While case rates nationwide have fallen to their lowest levels since March, anyone under 12 years old is still ineligible to get a vaccine. Those 12 and up, however, are recently able to get both Moderna and Pfizer shots, which reported 100% efficacy in their trials.

Elementary school-aged kids, those under 12, could be authorized to get the vaccines by Thanksgiving, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser for the White House, said on CNN last week, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” children of all ages will be eligible by the end of the year.

So far, 25% of children ages 12-17 have received one shot of the vaccine since it was authorized last month. While kids have generally been at lower risk for the virus, a new study from the CDC last week urged teenagers not to play the odds. The study showed that nearly a third of teens ages 12-17 hospitalized with COVID-19 ended up in the intensive care unit, with 5% ultimately being placed on ventilators.

Meanwhile, the pressure continues to build for the CDC to release new guidance for schools, particularly in the wake of guidance released last month that fully vaccinated adults do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said the guidance won’t come until after this school year ends.

“We’ve got a lot of questions about schools,” Walensky said on CNN just after releasing the new guidance for fully-vaccinated adults. “We will not be changing our guidance for the end of this school year. Most kids will not be vaccinated or fully vaccinated before the end of this year, and we’re going to work on updating our school guidance.”

That has left some states to apply CDC summer camp guidance to schools, as New York did Monday. Released last week, the CDC recommended children wear masks at camp if they’re not vaccinated, but said masks were not required at camp indoors or outdoors if they were.

“If you can go to camp and run around and play volleyball and not wear a mask, you — in the playground in school — you can not wear a mask,” Cuomo said on Monday.

That said, New York City schools — the nation’s largest school district — have not yet changed mask guidance outdoors in the wake of Cuomo’s announcement. As of Friday, the district said it was “continuing with our universal mask policy at our schools,” according to Danielle Filson, a spokesperson from the New York City Department of Education.

The same is the case in many school districts that are closely heeding CDC guidance, waiting to change policy until after the school year is over and the agency produces a federal recommendation.

Across the country in Los Angeles, masks will likely be required for all LAUSD schools through the fall semester at least, the superintendent said, barring guidance from the CDC that recommends otherwise.

“I don’t think we’re going to see some students without masks in schools who have been vaccinated, and some students who haven’t been vaccinated with masks. I think that’s highly unlikely in schools,” Beutner, LAUSD superintendent, told ABC News in a phone interview.

Beutner expected mask mandates to stay in place until vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, which has currently approved them by emergency use authorization but is expected to approve them permanently in the next few months. At that time, health authorities could require COVID vaccinations for students, as they do for other vaccines, Beutner said, and it will be easier to track who is and isn’t vaccinated.

Masks will be required “until more people have been vaccinated, until there’s clarity from health authorities on whether the vaccines will be made mandatory for staff and students,” Beutner said. “Those two go hand in hand.”

“I think the masks just stay on until there’s clarity from health authorities about that,” Beutner added.

Systems are important for COVID precautions in school, Beutner said, and having different sets of rules for children and staff based on vaccination status could cause a breakdown in implementation.

Unions, which have largely stood with the CDC guidance, still support masks in schools.

“We are just at the beginning stages of vaccination for kids, so we expect that masks will still be in place when the kids come back to school,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in an interview with ABC News.

Other precautions, like indicators on the floor to guide traffic in the hallways or social distancing, will also likely stay in place, Pringle said.

“It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be back in school — they need to be back in school,” Pringle said. “And so we have to do everything to do that. But we also want to make sure that they’re safe and we also want them to make sure they stay in school,” she added.

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