Rochelle Walensky: School Mask Guidelines Remain After Child Vaccine Approval

CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2021 (Greg Nash/Reuters)

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that her agency will continue to recommend that schools implement mask mandates for students and staff even after COVID-19 vaccines are approved for younger students.

Walensky’s comment comes as officials said COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 could be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within a couple of weeks. The White House said Wednesday that it is ready to quickly roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for that age group once it is authorized, with the administration having purchased enough doses for all 28 million children in that age group.

“After we have authorization from FDA and recommendations from CDC we will be working to scale up pediatric vaccination,” the CDC director said. “That said, it will take some time and as I just noted as we head into these winter months we know we cannot be complacent.”

Walensky claimed previous data show that schools that have had masks in place were 3.5 times less likely to have school outbreaks requiring school closure.

“So right now we’re going to continue to recommend masks in all schools for all people in those schools and we will look forward to scaling up pediatric vaccination during this period of time,” she said.

Meanwhile, a National Review analysis of COVID-19 data from schools in Florida showed that while many of the school districts that instituted the strictest mask mandates had among the lowest percentages of students and staff who tested positive for COVID-19, there was also evidence that the lower percentages were actually driven by larger community trends, including vaccination rates and natural immunity, rather than masking in schools. Additionally, several school districts without mask requirements had similar, and sometimes even lower, percentages of students who tested positive for COVID-19 than neighboring districts with stricter mask requirements.

Of 17 studies cited by the CDC as evidence that student masking is effective, not one study looked at student mask use in isolation from other mitigation measures, or against a control, according to an analysis by New York MagazineSome of the studies showed that the absence of masks correlated with low transmission in students.

The CDC’s own report from the 2020–2021 school year admitted that there was not a statistically significant difference in infection rates between schools that mandated masks for students and those that made usage optional. 

Meanwhile, mask mandates for students come at a significant cost to students’ learning outcomes, mental health, and social development. And data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics show that, as of September 2, seven states have seen no child deaths related to COVID-19, and that of the 45 states that provided data to the AAP, “0.00 percent–0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.”

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