Fully vaccinated students do not need to wear masks in classrooms this fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
The guidance, which goes beyond mask-wearing, is aimed at kindergartners through high school seniors, and is meant "to help keep kids in classrooms, as well as participating in any sports or extracurricular activities," said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who heads the CDC's Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force.
The recommendation for fully vaccinated students mirrors the CDC's previous guidance for fully vaccinated adults: no masks needed when indoors.
"Science completely supports that," said Mark Williams, dean of the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. "The vaccines are very effective in preventing infections, and if there is a breakthrough infection, it would not result in serious illness or hospitalization."
However, vaccines are only available for people ages 12 and up — leaving a large proportion of school-age children unprotected.
For unvaccinated students, the CDC continues to recommend masks and other prevention measures, such as testing and proper hand-washing.
The agency's guidance is not a mandate. School districts and local governments have the authority to make their own decisions, including whether to implement universal mask-wearing or ditch the masks completely, even for unvaccinated students. Local officials will also be able to determine whether to require proof of vaccination for students old enough, and if so, how to accomplish that.
Sauber-Schatz said that areas with high levels of community spread should consider adding mitigation measures, including masks for all, regardless of vaccination status. The agency also says schools should consider weekly screening tests for unvaccinated students in areas with high case rates.
But counties and school districts across the country are already starting to make their own decisions.
In Missouri, the Clay County Public Health Center has stated that masks will not be required for children when they return to school this fall.
Missouri has one of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases in the country.
Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in the Kansas City, Missouri, area expressed frustration that the CDC guidance basically puts the responsibility of masking requirements on local school leaders.
"This isn't going to help the cause for the school districts that are trying to use the CDC as a marker for defending mask policies," said Burgert, who is also a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
This story was originally published on NBC News.