The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended Monday that all children over the age of 2 wear masks in school this fall, regardless of vaccination status, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the nation.
The guidelines, which strongly support the return to in-person learning in the coming months, reflect a multi-pronged approach to see students return safely to the classroom more than a year and a half after the pandemic began.
“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers ― and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health, said in a statement. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking, and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”
The body also recommended that parents ensure their children are caught up on vaccinations they may have missed during the pandemic and that schools provide adequate ventilation indoors, as well as increased resources for testing, quarantining, and cleaning when positive cases of the virus emerge. (The AAP’s guidelines include exclusions for students with medical conditions or disabilities.)
Vaccines for children in the U.S. are currently authorized only for those 12 and older, meaning many students will likely return to classrooms without inoculations this fall. The AAP pointed to those restrictions in its recommendations and the inability of many schools to monitor students’ vaccination status, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates.
The policy guidelines reflect ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, particularly after the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus became the dominant strain in the United States. Case numbers a rising in every state, and some regions have decided to reinstate mask mandates — including Los Angeles County — amid ongoing calls from public health officials urging citizens to get vaccinated.
Vaccines are the best defense against severe cases of COVID-19 and death associated with the disease, and the current inoculations protect well against the delta strain. Almost all of the nation’s recent coronavirus deaths are among people who were not vaccinated, prompting concern from health officials about a stubborn stall in the level of inoculations. Less than half of the county is fully vaccinated.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said this week that he expected more areas to reinstate COVID-19 prevention measures, including mask requirements, on a rolling basis as more transmissible variants cause case spikes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said in May that fully vaccinated people could remove their masks in most settings amid a vaccination blitz. Still, the delta variant has upended some regions’ plans.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Monday on CNN that the AAP’s recommendations were sensible considering a large swath of the country remained unvaccinated, particularly during the spread of the delta variant.
“When you have a degree of viral dynamics in the community, and you have a substantial proportion of the population that is unvaccinated, you really want to go the extra step, the extra mile to make sure that there’s not a lot of transmissions, even breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals,” he said. “I think that the American Academy of Pediatrics, you know, they’re a thoughtful group, they analyze the situation, and if they feel that that’s the way to go, I think that’s a reasonable thing to do.