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Your school's plans after CDC changes student, teacher mask guidelines
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Gainesville Middle School students wear masks while walking to their next class Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Vaccinated teachers and students don't need to wear masks inside school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in relaxing its COVID-19 guidelines.

The changes come amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, as well as a general decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

“We're at a new point in the pandemic that we're all really excited about," and so it's time to update the guidance, said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who leads the CDC task force that prepares recommendations designed to keep Americans safe from COVID-19.

The updated CDC guidelines are unlikely to affect the guidelines for the Gainesville and Hall County school districts.

On May 10, Hall County Schools updated its mask guidelines, making masks optional for K-5 students and keeping its indoor guidelines for grades 6-12. The district again updated its guidelines on May 25 and made masks optional for everyone, both indoor and outdoor.

Those guidelines will likely remain for the coming school year, said Craig Herrington, chair of Hall County Schools Board of Education.

“Masks are optional,” Herrington said. “We’ll probably stick with what we have now until we see numbers that cause us to change them.”

He said the district will continue to implement extra cleaning of schools and sanitize buses.

Masks will probably be optional in Gainesville City Schools as well. Masks had previously been required for all students and employees since July 13, 2020.

“We are leaning more towards making it optional, but also we’re following the Delta variant and how that’s impacting not just other parts of the country but as it’s starting to impact Southeastern Georgia or more specifically Gainesville and Hall County,” said Jeremy Williams, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.

Williams said the district will release its official mask guidelines on July 19 at the next board meeting.

Gainesville City Schools board members said they will defer to the guidelines put forth by Williams in conjunction with CDC guidelines. 

“I know everybody is anxious to know about the mask mandates and what we did last year and how we looked to change it,” Williams said. “This time a year ago we were really seeing a spike in our area due to the events around the Fourth of July weekend last year, and so part of the reason we have not finalized anything yet is we want to wait and see what the two or three or four weeks after the Fourth looks like, because we’d hate to put out a final decision on it now and have to pull that back a week before we start school.”

The nation's top public health agency is not advising schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids. And it's not offering guidance on how teachers can know which students are vaccinated or how parents will know which teachers are immunized.

“The guidance is really written to allow flexibility at the local level,” Sauber-Schatz said.

What about requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of school attendance? That's commonly done across the country to prevent spread of measles and other diseases.

The CDC has repeatedly praised such requirements, but the agency on Friday didn't recommend that measure because it is considered a state and local policy decision, CDC officials said. 

“As far as vaccinations, we have no intention of requiring vaccinations or requiring proof of vaccinations,” Herrington said. “That’s a personal choice and we don’t want to get into that.”

Gainesville City Schools will take much the same approach.

“What we have not done is gone, and if somebody’s not wearing a mask, ask them, ‘Hey are you vaccinated, show me your card,’” Williams said. “We’re not going to get into that business.”

School systems do require a Georgia Immunization Certificate as part of enrollment, but the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet part of the required immunizations.

Early in the pandemic, health officials worried schools might become coronavirus cauldrons that spark community outbreaks. But studies have shown that schools often see less transmission than the surrounding community when certain prevention measures are followed.

The new guidance is the latest revision to advice the CDC began making to schools last year. 

In March, the CDC stopped recommending that children and their desks be spaced 6 feet apart, shrinking the distance to 3 feet, and dropped its call for use of plastic shields. 

In May, the agency said Americans in general don’t have to be as cautious about masks and distancing outdoors, and that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most situations. That change was incorporated into updated guidance for summer camps — and now, schools.

The new schools guidance says:

  • No one at schools needs to wear masks at recess or in most other outdoor situations. However, unvaccinated people are advised to wear masks if they are in a crowd for an extended period of time, like in the stands at a football game. 

  • Ventilation and handwashing continue to be important. Students and staff also should stay home when they are sick.

  • Testing remains an important way to prevent outbreaks. But the CDC also says people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in such screening.

  • Separating students into smaller groups, or cohorts, continues to be a good way to help reduce spread of the virus. But the CDC discouraged putting vaccinated and unvaccinated kids in separate groups, saying schools shouldn't stigmatize any group or perpetuate academic, racial or other tracking.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.