The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended on Monday that all students older than 2 years old wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status, when schools reopen in the fall.
The leading pediatrics organization called for universal masking, noting that most school-aged children are not yet eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and many schools are not planning to track the vaccination status of students and staff.
The recommendation is designed to protect unvaccinated students, as masking has been shown to decrease virus transmission.
The AAP said, however, it “strongly recommends in-person learning," adding that children face a higher risk of mental health issues and developmental setbacks if students do not return to classrooms.
The pediatrics group acknowledged that current research indicates reopening schools with safety precautions like masking "does not significantly increase community transmission." But with variants like the delta strain spreading, the AAP noted transmission could increase.
Overall, the AAP says opening schools with effective safety precautions, including masking, is the right move.
“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."
Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 is the only vaccine authorized for children, with those 12 years old and up eligible to be inoculated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for schools earlier this month, saying fully vaccinated students and teachers do not need masks indoors.
But without a method to verify vaccination status, many schools plan to rely on the honor system.
The CDC also urged all schools to reopen for in-person learning in the fall after the pandemic prompted schools to operate on remote and hybrid schedules.
The new recommendation comes as debates over universal masking have reemerged as COVID-19 cases climb nationally.
This weekend, Los Angeles County reinstituted a masking requirement in indoor public spaces.
--Updated at 11:41 a.m.