The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended “universal masking” during the 2021-22 school year.
Students over age 2 and staff should wear face masks regardless of coronavirus vaccination status as “a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines” and because many schools will not have systems in place to monitor the vaccination status of students and staff, the group said in its updated guidance for the upcoming school year.
Children ages 12 and older are eligible to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. But that still leaves many school-aged children who cannot be vaccinated, the organization notes.
The organization also pointed to the “possibility of low vaccination uptake within the surrounding school community” and concerns about COVID-19 variants like delta that could spread more easily.
Face-mask use could also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses “that would take time away from school,” the organization said.
“There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated,” Sara Bode, chairperson elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee, said in a statement. “This is why it’s important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID-19. Universal masking is one of those tools, and has been proven effective in protecting people against other respiratory diseases, as well.”
The AAP’s guidance differs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for K-12 schools, which says that all people older than 2 who are not fully vaccinated should wear face masks, especially when “indoors or in crowded settings.”
The AAP also “strongly recommends” that students return for in-person learning and encouraged “all who are eligible” to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” Sonja O’Leary, MD, FAAP, chairperson of the AAP Council on School Health, said in a statement. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”
In addition to the guidance on vaccinations and masking, the AAP recommends that schools take a “multi-pronged, layered approach” to protect against COVID-19 spread. That includes the availability of coronavirus testing, proper ventilation, quarantining and cleaning and disinfecting efforts.
“Combining these layers of protection will make in-person learning safe and possible,” the organization says. “Schools should monitor the implementation and effectiveness of these policies.”