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What to know about CDC’s new mask guidance

Last Friday, CDC issued new mask guidance that revises the criteria by which communities - including schools - should consider wearing masks. The guidance is a significant shift from the previous risk assessment criteria - which focused on the total number of new cases and the rate of positive tests. In its updated indicators, CDC’s recommendations are based on hospitalization data to assess not only the community spread, but also weigh the severity of cases in making decisions about mitigation measures. The goal of this change is to focus on minimizing severe disease and ensure hospitals are able to continue providing standard care. 

What does the new guidance say?

CDC lays out a system for assessing individual counties’ community level based on two criteria: 

  1. The rate of Covid cases that require hospitalization, and
  2. The percentage of beds in hospitals that are occupied by people who have Covid. 

These are assessed differently depending on whether the county’s current level of new cases is above or below 200 new cases per 100,000 population in the past 7 days. 

This means if your school is located in a county with a new case rate of 0.2% or less (200 new cases per 100K population) in the past 7 days, as long as Covid hospital admissions and capacity remain in the “low” and “medium” category, masks are no longer universally recommended on campus. For schools in counties with a new case rate above 0.2% in the past 7 days, lower hospital admissions and capacity trigger a “high” level or risk, meaning mask recommendations would be applied more broadly. 

These criteria are summarized in the following table on CDC’s website. To find out the levels and indicators for your county, use CDC’s interactive map.

COVID-19 Community Levels and Indicators

So, what does this mean for schools? 

Currently, more than 70 percent of the U.S. population is in an area with a “low” or “medium” COVID-19 community level, meaning in those counties masks are no longer universally recommended for the general public or in schools. Over the past week, we’ve seen states that have had consistent school mask mandates like California, Washington, and Colorado begin to lift them. And many counties and district boards within those states have been following suit.COVID-19 Community LevelsAs you consider what makes sense for your school community, here are four important questions to ask:

  • What is our county’s Covid community level? Start here. As always, it will be important to base any and all decisions on the public health situation in our individual communities. (You can look up your county’s community level here.)
  • What are surrounding schools planning? While this may not directly influence our next steps, it is a helpful data point to consider.
  • How does our school community feel about the idea of removing masks? Chances are good that there is a wide variety of feelings about masks within each community. If there are indications that a vast majority of staff and/or families feel strongly about keeping masks, that’s an important thing to consider. Likewise, if they feel strongly about removing them that’s a good thing to know. We may have a sense of this already, but if not, it may be worth surveying the community to understand how they feel. This can not only support our decision-making but also create some community buy-in and understanding once the decision has been made. 
  • How would unmasking fit in with our larger Covid protocols? Be sure to review the timeline and plan for unmasking in the context of broader health protocols, and consider how it might shift other pieces of the plan. (If you haven’t built a plan yet, read this blog post to help you get started.) 

Ultimately, you know your school and community best, and your team is the only one who can make the right decision for your school. We’re here to be partners if you need support in making that decision. 


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