U.S. CDC updates school guidance to emphasize in-person learning

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July 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday updated its guidance for U.S. schools reopening in the fall, recommending masking indoors for everyone who is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and three feet of distance within classrooms.

The agency said school administrators can require indoor mask use even for students and educators who are vaccinated, depending on the needs of the community. Reasons would include schools with children under age 12, who are not currently authorized to receive COVID-19 vaccines, or high rates of COVID-19 transmission in the region.

"The guidance does reflect the fact that vaccination makes it easier to conduct school in person, which should be the default," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. But it involves "a lot of hedging and risk calculation," he added.

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California said it would continue to require all students and educators to wear masks during school, citing the fact that many of its school facilities can’t accommodate physical distancing.

“Masking is a simple and effective intervention," California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a statement. He also said the requirement would ensure that all kids are treated the same.

The National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers union, said the updated CDC guidance offers a roadmap for students to return to school.

"Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated should get their COVID-19 vaccination... Schools should be consistently and rigorously employing all the recommended mitigation strategies," NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

Schools throughout the United States began to close in March of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and many students were shifted to online learning at home. Critics had accused teacher unions of slowing reopenings by demanding virus mitigation practices, such as universal masking, fewer kids in classrooms and social distancing. L1N2K12OT


The updated guidance is likely to set off more debate about what is appropriate. Some regions have stricter guidelines than the others.

"Most of the school debate has not been adherent to science - it has really been linked to politics and teacher unions," Adalja said.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest U.S. teachers' union, said the new CDC guidance makes sense and will help students return to the classroom.

“The guidance confirms two truths: that students learn better in the classroom, and that vaccines remain our best bet to stop the spread of this virus," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

The CDC said schools should rely on local health data when deciding to relax or tighten prevention strategies, including mask wearing and physical distancing.

"Because of the importance of in-person learning, schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures, but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement," the new guidance said.

The agency said its recommendations are appropriate even with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.

"What we have seen is that students are capable of wearing masks ... Should there be evidence of variants spreading, masks reduce the risk," said Dr. Nathaniel Beers, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) school opening guidelines.

He said updated AAP guidance will be announced within the next couple of weeks.

A study by the CDC released on Friday showed that half of unvaccinated adolescents and parents of unvaccinated adolescents reported being uncertain about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, or did not intend to get one at all.

Nationwide, according to the CDC statistics on Friday, around 55% of the overall population and 67% of adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose.

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Reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler and Aurora Ellis

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