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With conflicting back-to-school mask guidance, what's next for Washington students?

While the CDC says masks won't be necessary for vaccinated students and staff, other experts believe face coverings could keep children safer in the classroom.

SEATTLE — With back-to-school around the corner, districts across Washington state are preparing to return to fully in-person learning in the fall. COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, and the pandemic has shown the myriad benefits of getting kids together in the classroom.

Now, the question is how to do that safely amid the lingering threat of the pandemic.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued new recommendations on classroom safety – including a push to get vaccinated if eligible and guidance that nearly all students and staff should wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

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That masking push contradicts recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which had said vaccinated students and staff would not need to wear masks indoors by the fall.

The Washington Department of Health (DOH) is currently requiring students and staff over the age of 2 to wear a mask indoors, unless a medical or developmental issue renders it unsafe. Masks are not required outdoors.

Dr. Benjamin Starnes, executive medical director of pediatrics for Swedish in Seattle, said the AAP guidance reflects a "by any means necessary" push to get and keep kids in the classroom. That is after growing research showed severe mental health and educational impacts for kids that have endured two school years impacted by the pandemic and remote learning.

Back in March, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a mental health crisis among children and signed a declaration requiring districts to offer some in-person learning.

Even in Washington and King County, where vaccination rates are relatively high, Starnes said masking has a place in the classroom come fall.

“[Masking] will protect them from more than just COVID,” said Starnes. “It's going to keep them healthy and less likely to miss school from, you know, a common cold, which unfortunately because of COVID, we have to keep children out of school with any kind of symptom that might resemble COVID until we know for sure, which adds a different layer of complexity and allowing them to come back to school.”

The AAP and Starnes highlighted the difficulty of verifying individual student's vaccination status and enforcing different mask standards based on it. Universal masking would be much easier to implement.

Both also noted a large number of K-12 students – anyone under the age of 12 – does not yet qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine and would be at increased risk.

Though masks have certainly become a political issue for some, research shows they are effective at preventing COVID-19 transmission. Starnes asked any parents opposed to masking for in-person learning to consider the alternatives and potential consequences.

“I would say I want the child to continue to be able to go to school in person, and the only way we're going to accomplish that is if we do our very best to keep every single child in the school as healthy and protected from COVID as possible,” explained Starnes. “Because it's just going to take one outbreak in a school to shut that school down, and then all of those children that go there have now lost the opportunity to be in an in-person school.”

Washington state offers the following requirements for schools in the coming academic year, per the DOH guidance: "For the 2021-2022 school year, schools must plan to provide full time in-person education for all interested students with the following mandatory mitigation measures: face coverings, ventilation, cleaning and disinfecting, details of how schools will respond to cases of COVID-19, and meet the reporting requirements to public health."

However, the DOH said Monday that changes could be forthcoming.

"We are currently reviewing the CDC’s K-12 guidance and working with the local public health, the Governor’s Office, the Department of Labor and Industries, Office of the Superintendent of Public instruction, school districts and educators as we consider the next steps," a spokesperson said. "We expect to issue updates to the guidance in the coming weeks."

Both Seattle and Tacoma public schools said Monday they plan to follow state guidance on vaccination and masks. Everett's COVID site asks people to still wears masks in the school building. Seattle has an information and planning page for the 2021/2022 school year here, with Tacoma's plan downloadable here, and Everett's here.

Seattle, Tacoma and Everett plan to offer remote learning options for interested students. Tacoma said 1,300 students had already enrolled for the virtual option, out of approximately 28,000 students.

RELATED: Summer school surge: Washington students make up for lost time following year of remote learning

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