CDC says fully vaccinated teachers, staff can ditch masks, unclear if N.Y. will follow

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed teachers and students who are fully vaccinated to enter school facilities without masks on last week. (Photo courtesy of Metro Connection)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined new guidelines that permit fully vaccinated teachers and students to enter school facilities without masks on, but New York officials have not said if the state will adopt the guidelines this fall.

The new guidelines, released by the CDC last week, say fully vaccinated teachers, staff and students can forego masks but recommend that those not fully vaccinated, including students younger than 12, to continue wearing face coverings. The CDC also recommended that unvaccinated people should follow a three-foot social distancing protocol in classrooms.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the guidance states. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

State Health Department spokeswoman Jill Montag confirmed that state officials are reviewing the new guidance from the organization.

The guidelines were released a day after state officials announced that requiring masks and face coverings for summer school programs would be at the discretion of each individual school district throughout New York. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the move was “great news.”

“As I’ve been saying for months, the decision should be put in the hands of school districts and parents, who know their children and particular circumstances best,” Curran said in a statement. “Our incredible vaccination progress in Nassau County means residents have the freedom to safely live, work, and play as they see fit.”

The developments came a month after state health officials sparked confusion and controversy in New York school districts with shifting guidance on whether public school students and staff must continue wearing masks to stem the spread of COVID-19.

A group of school leaders said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration created “a colossal mess” for parents and administrators alike by making it unclear how local districts should go about changing their mask policies.

In early June, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker outlined planned new mask guidance for schools in a letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying masks would be “strongly encouraged but not required” for New York students, staff and teachers who are not fully vaccinated.

Masks would also not be required outdoors, though those who remained without a full inoculation series would be encouraged to wear them in “certain higher-risk” outdoor settings, Zucker said.

But state officials later said the tentative plans outlined in Zucker’s letter were contingent on a response from the CDC. Officials said they wanted input from the federal agency on whether or not lifting the restrictions would negatively affect the health and safety of those in schools.

Cuomo, a Democrat, tried to clarify the confusion afterwards, saying that students, staff and teachers would be required to wear masks inside, but that districts can decide whether or not masks are required in outdoor settings.

“We spoke with the CDC, and since they’re not going to change their guidance for several weeks in New York State, we’re going to modify the CDC guidance and allow schools to choose no mask outside for children,” Cuomo said. “We’ll leave that up to the local school district and we spoke to the CDC, which has no objection. It’s very important that people understand the logic between these decisions and that they’re rational and based on the science and the data.”

But the state’s Council of School Superintendents said Zucker’s letter to the CDC and the subsequent flip-flopping on mask mandates had caused headaches and uncertainty for administrators.

“The release of this letter on a Friday afternoon, with no consultation or advance notice, is too typical of what we have all experienced throughout the pandemic,” the council said in a statement. “But it’s also worse, in creating expectations among parents for immediate changes in district policies, without either explicit legal authority for action or clarity in specific requirements that may need to be considered in making any changes.”

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