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This week marked a major shift for the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, and much of American life – including the classroom – could soon start to look much the way it did pre-pandemic.
After more than a year in which many students were learning remotely, children and educators should expect to return to in-person and full-time classes, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC on Friday.
“We have the capacity now, between vaccines and testing, screening, we believe schools can and should be a very safe place for people to go back to in the fall,” Walensky said.
The US Food and Drug Administration and the CDC this week expanded authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15 – the first vaccine authorization for adolescents and young teens.
And on Thursday, the CDC announced major relaxations to mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people, saying those individuals can ditch the masks indoors and outdoors (except for certain circumstances), introducing a benefit for those who are immunized against Covid-19 and another incentive to those who remain hesitant about getting vaccinated.
“People who are vaccinated should feel perfectly comfortable in going indoors without a mask,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday.
But while many things are changing for those who have been vaccinated, those who are not may find things looking much the same as they have for the past year, experts said. And that could extend to students in the classroom.
Children who have not yet been vaccinated will still need to wear masks in the classroom, Fauci said, adding that he could “almost guarantee” most schools will require it.
Even vaccinated teachers may still be wearing masks if they are around unvaccinated students, vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit said Friday.
“If you’re around a large number of children who are not wearing masks, who certainly can get this infection – roughly 24% of the infections currently in the United States are in children – I guess, were I a teacher, I would choose to wear a mask,” Offit told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
‘It means a lot’ to get vaccinated, teen says
Just over 47% of the total US population has received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, and about 36.7% of the US population is fully vaccinated, according to data published Saturday by the CDC. Among those ages 12 and older, 55.7% have received at least one dose, and 43.5% are fully vaccinated.
Among them is 14-year-old Lucas Brumbach, who got a shot Saturday at Balboa Park in Encino, California. He’s the last member of his family to get vaccinated, after his parents and two older sisters.
“It means a lot,” he told CNN, adding it’s mostly a “matter of convenience.” Once he’s fully vaccinated, he won’t have to worry as much, he said, “and life will just be easier, pretty much.” Now he’s looking forward to visiting family in Northern California.
“I’m just glad,” his father, Steve Brumbach told CNN of getting his last child vaccinated. “I want to get back to normal. I wish everybody else would go and get vaccinated and not have any reticence about doing so.”
There are half a million 12-to-15-year-olds in Los Angeles County, Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, told CNN. And vaccinating them will give them the chance to “get back to the things that they love.”
“They want to hang out with their friends ,and they don’t want to be worried, and they want to go to parties again, and they want to go do activities,” she said. “A lot of them are playing sports, and they want to make sure they can go ahead and have all of the excitement that comes with being on a sports team without all of the worry.”
Meantime, officials have been strategizing on how to convince more adolescents to get vaccinated, especially as it usually involves having to convince their parents.
Nearly all states require some form of parental or guardian consent for vaccine providers to administer Covid-19 shots to adolescents ages 12 to 15, a CNN analysis finds.
But there are a few exceptions. Five states – Alabama, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee – either allow some ages in that group to consent for themselves or leave requirements up to individual vaccine providers.
Another focus for officials is ensuring vaccines are given to 12- to 15-year-olds in an equitable way, the CDC’s vaccine advisers said Friday.
Solving social isolation from remote school
The effort to vaccinate children and adolescents could have just as big of an impact on their social health as it does on their physical health.
While many students will recover academically, one the worst aspects of remote learning has been the loss of in-person social interaction, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told CNN, and resources will be needed to address that.
“There are some kids who did very well on remote,” Weingarten said. “But what’s really been lost is the peer-to-peer contact. What’s really been lost is the prolonged effects of social isolation.”
She also noted the pandemic has highlighted the huge inequities within the education system and that it was crucial to provide more resources to schools that weren’t doing well before Covid-19.
Where states stand on mask guidance
Following the CDC’s decision Thursday to advise that masks do not have to be worn indoors for those who are vaccinated, many state leaders quickly revised their own guidance.
After holding back to review the CDC guidelines, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday the state is relaxing its Covid-19 measures.
“Effective immediately, we are lifting all mandatory capacity and gathering limits, and social distancing requirements, and most mandatory mask requirements,” Cooper said. “That means, in most settings indoors or outdoors, the state of North Carolina will no longer require you to wear a mask, or to be socially distant.”
Colorado also initially paused any changes. But Friday Gov. Jared Polis announced that the state is moving from a mask mandate to a mask suggestion.
“We are thrilled with the recent CDC guidance,” Polis said during a Friday press conference. “We are able to really embrace this science-based judgment by the CDC, which we agree with.”
Costco also said Friday customers who are vaccinated against Covid-19 can shop without masks at US locations where there are no state or local mask mandates.
“Most of the people in restaurants are eating and drinking, and so when you go into restaurants mostly what you see are poeple at their tables without their makss on and that’s appropriate and that’s what the directives say right now
Travel hitting pandemic-era highs
Despite relaxed mask guidelines, Walensky made it clear this week that masks are still required for transportation, including air travel. And Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told CNN those rules will continue to be enforced.
“In the airports we have no way of telling who is vaccinated and who is not. The rules have to be the same for everyone,” she said, adding that refusal to comply could carry up to a $35,000 fine and jail time.
But that’s not hindering travelers. Air travel continues to soar, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which reported 1.71 million people traveled through US airports on Friday – the second highest number of daily travelers during the pandemic.
The pandemic-era record for air travel was set Thursday, when the TSA said it had screened 1.74 million people. That eclipsed the previous record set last Sunday by about 36,000, an indication that Americans are increasingly eager to travel.
CNN’s Dakin Andone, Paul Vercammen, Virginia Langmaid, Lauren Mascarenhas, Deidre McPhillips, Jacqueline Howard, Maggie Fox, Taylor Romine, Kelsie Smith and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.