The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new, controversial guidance on the necessity of masks in schools, and it is causing some school districts to reassess plans that were arrived at only after painstaking debate.
The new guidelines, which reverse guidance that was issued by the CDC just three weeks ago, call on all schools to require masks for students, teachers and visitors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated.
After much debate, School District 303 recently adopted a policy that made mask-wearing optional for students and staff. In response to the new guidelines, Carol Smith, the district’s director of communications and community relations, said in an email that “we are in the process of reviewing the updated guidance related to K-12 school to see how it will impact our return to school plan.”
District 304 planned to present a similar mask-optional policy to its school board next Monday, August 2. It is unknown how the newly-issued guidance will affect these plans.
Local school districts are in a tough spot, since the Illinois Department of Public Health immediately adopted the CDC’s new guidance, and, in its updated FAQs made this stark warning to schools:
In addition to the health and safety reasons for following the CDC’s guidance, school districts that decide not to follow the CDC’s guidance should consult with their insurers regarding risk assumption and liability coverage. Insurers may be unwilling to cover liabilities created as a result of failure to adhere to public health guidance.
The CDC’s new guidance is based on the increased prevalence of the so-called “Delta Variant,” which is a mutation of the prior form of COVID-19 that is at once much more contagious but much less lethal than its predecessor. Studies have shown, and the CDC has recognized, that current vaccinations are highly effective against Delta. But recent, contested studies from India have suggested that fully-vaccinated individuals can still carry significant “viral loads” in their lungs and throat, thus making it possible that they could transmit the virus to others, particularly non-vaccinated individuals.
However, medical news outlet STAT reported today that “an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told STAT that health experts do not have studies proving that fully vaccinated people are transmitting the virus.”
Regardless, school districts that have largely settled on the mask-optional model will now be faced with the choice of adhering to the new guidelines and risking the ire of most parents, or staying the course and risking an unlikely but possible outbreak and financial liability.
And as the calendar heads into August, they have little time to do it.