Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Aug. 4, 2021

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Washington schools won’t require masks outdoors, but state reviewing new CDC rules on indoor mask-wearing

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Washington students and staff will no longer be required to wear masks outdoors at school — and staff can go maskless indoors if they are vaccinated against the coronavirus and no children are present — state health officials announced this week.

The new rules, quietly released Tuesday, don’t go as far as more relaxed national guidance released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Friday, the CDC urged schools to reopen in the fall even if they can’t always strictly enforce safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing. Notably, federal officials said it’s not necessary for vaccinated people to wear masks inside schools, though those who are unvaccinated are still encouraged to wear face coverings.

Washington State Department of Health officials didn’t immediately respond to questions about their new rules, or whether they’ll loosen state rules to align with the new national guidelines. But health officials have in recent weeks said they were anticipating new federal mask guidance — and would consider changes after they reviewed CDC guidance. On Friday, DOH officials said by email that they are “evaluating this guidance from the CDC and will have more to share in the coming weeks.”

With the release of the new national recommendations, state health officials will work “on a more comprehensive update to their K-12 schools guidance,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. She said she learned about the new state rules late Thursday.

The state’s health department, not education officials, sets health and safety requirements in schools, and officials were aware of the update. “They have been saying this whole time, middle to late summer we’ll have a larger update,” Payne said.

The new federal guidance is the latest revision to advice the CDC began giving to schools last year. In March, the the agency 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. Washington followed suit in late March, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced that K-12 schools could reduce the physical distance between students to 3 feet.

Whether DOH’s forthcoming changes will again align with the CDC is unclear, state education department leader Chris Reykdal said in a Friday email to Washington school district superintendents. Several states, including California and Virginia, have policies requiring all students to wear masks at school regardless of vaccination. Governors and lawmakers in some other states, including in Arizona, Iowa and Texas, have barred local school officials from requiring masks.

For now, Washington health officials are “strongly” recommending, but not requiring, unvaccinated students and staff to continue wearing masks outside if they can’t stay 6 feet apart.

And everyone will be required to wear masks indoors when school is in session, regardless of vaccination status, officials say. The Washington Education Association, which represents teachers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

About 31% of Washington 12- to 15-year-olds and 41% of 16- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus as of July 5, state data shows.

But children under 12 still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. And while eligible Washington adolescents, teens and adults are not required to get a shot to attend school, state and federal guidelines urge them to do so.

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, agency officials said.

Like Washington’s guidelines, the new federal schools guidance emphasizes the importance of a layered approach to school safety. It 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, such as in the stands at a football game.
  • Ventilation and hand-washing continue to be important. Students and staff 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 children in separate groups, saying schools shouldn’t stigmatize any group or perpetuate academic, racial or other tracking.
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