After more than a year of remote learning, hybrid schedules and missed experiences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this month that schools should return full-time to in-person learning this fall, and that masks would not be required for those vaccinated.
The CDC also said schools may opt to make mask use universally required regardless of vaccination status, especially with COVID-19 cases surging again in some states and concerns over new virus variants growing. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement July 19 recommending masks in schools for everyone over 2 years old regardless of vaccination status.
Local school district officials said they’re awaiting state guidance before making any final decisions.
“Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021 is a priority,” the CDC stated in its July 9 guidelines update. “COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels.
Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies.”
Because many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time, the guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies, like using multiple approaches together consistently, to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff and other members of their households. These tactics include screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette; staying home when sick and getting tested; contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation; and cleaning and disinfection.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for use in kids ages 12 and up. The companies said they plan to request emergency use authorization in kids ages 5-11 in the fall.
“Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the CDC said. “Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.”
“All districts will follow the recommendations and guidelines as set forth by the New York State Department of Health, New York State Education Department and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services,” the Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays, Southampton, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor school districts said in a joint statement through Syntax Communications.
In a letter to parents on July 8, recently-hired Westhampton Beach Superintendent Carolyn Probst said masks are optional for students in the elementary school summer academy and the English as a New Language summer program.
“Given the current low rates of COVID-19 transmission, masks are no longer required for students under the age of 18 and vaccinated adults participating in summer school programs,” she said. “All other COVID-19 safety precautions will remain in place. This update to the state guidance and district mask policy is currently in place for summer programs only.”
In a similar message sent out on the same day, Southampton Superintendent Nicholas Dyno said as per state DOH guidance for the summer of 2021, the district would no longer require all individuals in the school to wear masks and complete the daily attestation, but that unvaccinated adults are required to wear masks within district buildings.
Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen said in a letter to parents July 12 that masks must still be worn while on school buses to and from summer school, and that unvaccinated faculty and staff will still be required to wear masks while indoors — except when eating, drinking or taking a mask break.
“Masks are not required for vaccinated or unvaccinated students, faculty and staff when outdoors,” Mr. Clemensen said. “The district will continue to honor the rights of individuals who choose to wear masks in both the indoor and outdoor settings despite this change in state guidance for the summer.”
East Hampton Superintendent Adam Fine said summer school in his district is currently following the same guidelines, and that he’s planning on a “normal” opening in the fall.
“Once we receive guidance from the New York State Department of Health, Suffolk County Department of Health and State Education Department, we will figure out what we are required to do,” he said. “At that point, I will bring my recommendations to the Board of Education for discussion and a decision. I am hoping we get something from New York State in the next few weeks.”
During summer school in Springs, students are also still wearing masks in the classroom and on buses, but not when outdoors or when eating or drinking.
The CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk.