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The CDC revised mask wearing guidance on Tuesday to help contain the spread of Covid-19. But nine states ban school districts from enacting mask mandates.
All students and faculty should wear face masks at school to protect against the spread of Covid-19, regardless of their vaccination status, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised on Tuesday.
But the recommendation for universal masking in schools is a stark contrast to the approach some states have embraced—emphasizing personal responsibility, and prohibiting school districts from requiring face masks.
Nine states enacted legislation this year to ban school districts from enforcing mask mandates—Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont. All are led by Republican governors.
The CDC’s announcement comes as part of the agency’s revised guidance for vaccinated individuals. It now recommends that people in regions with “high” or “substantial” transmission rates wear face masks when indoors in public.
The changes come in response to the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain of the coronavirus, which has contributed to a 300% increase in new infections across the country over the last month. “Worrisome” new data also shows that vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant can carry as much virus as those who are unvaccinated, suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a call with reporters.
The CDC defines a “substantial” level of community transmission as 50 to 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a 7-day period and a “high” level as more than 100 cases.
“We have counties and states here that are reporting over 300 cases per 100,000 over a 7-day period, so really an extraordinary amount of viral transmission, which is what we are concerned about,” Walensky said.
It is unclear to what end state and local lawmakers may reexamine bans on school mask mandates given the new guidance, but Biden administration officials hope at least some will reconsider their policies.
“I certainly hope for the health and well-being of the next generation that they take a close look at the guidance,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
At least one state experiencing a surge of new coronavirus infections may reexamine the ban on mask mandates in schools.
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchison is expected to meet this week with the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate to discuss Democrats’ growing calls to allow schools to require face masks. Every county in the state has a high level of community transmission, according to CDC data and only 41% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the state’s Department of Health.
"If we take any action, we want it to be broadly supported by our school districts and that they actually want to have that local option," Hutchinson said during a town hall meeting Monday.
But in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster reiterated his support for leaving the decision to wear masks up to parents and students rather than school districts.
“Shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is,” McMaster wrote in a statement on Twitter. “The vaccine works. If you haven’t decided whether to get vaccinated yet, please talk to your doctors and loved ones and consider all of your options.”
Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive Covid-19 vaccines.
Preventing Outbreaks and Mutations
Facing a rash of new outbreaks, health officials in Los Angeles County and St. Louis recommended earlier this month that vaccinated residents resume mask wearing when in public. Meanwhile public school districts in some major cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., have recently announced that masks will be required on school grounds.
The Delta strain accounted for 83% of new coronavirus infections in the United States as of July 17, up from 51% on July 3, according to the latest data from the CDC.
While some breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals are possible, the available vaccines provide significant protection from severe illness and death from a Covid-19 infection, Walenksy said. But she encouraged people to get vaccinated and to wear masks to help stop the spread and possible mutation of the virus into a disease that available vaccines will not protect against.
“The big concern is the next variant that might emerge, just a few mutations away, could potentially evade our vaccine,” she said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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