COVID-19 and Masks: What Parents Should Know About the Guidelines

Published on: Aug 20, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Back to School Kids COVID-19

The latest series of COVID-19 outbreaks across the country – called the 'delta wave' – is causing serious complications around the US. Hospitals are at capacity. And states with high populations of unvaccinated people are driving the increase, like Florida, where one-fifth of the nation's COVID-19 hospitalizations are being reported. And debates about mask mandates in schools are happening in school districts nationwide.

As of August 12 children made up 18% of weekly reported COVID-19 cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Note: Children make up about 2.4% of the nation's coronavirus hospitalizations, according to a Reuters report). And while some vaccines have been authorized for younger groups (see: anyone 12 years and older can get Pfizer's shots), parents and caretakers are wondering what happens to the tens of millions of Americans under 12 years old who don't yet qualify for a vaccine – especially as they start a new school year in person.

While kids who have contracted the virus tend to have less severe cases than adults, they can still get sick, experience serious complications, and spread the virus to others. But more data is needed to show the impact of the delta variant on children.

Here’s what experts suggest when it comes to masks and unvaccinated kids…

When at home

The CDC says unvaccinated people 2 years and older should wear a mask “in public settings and when around people who don't live in their household." Experts seem to agree that vaccinated parents and their unvaccinated kids don’t need to wear masks around the house with each other as long as they are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

And for parents of newborns, one expert suggests having guests meet the baby outdoors after they’ve washed their hands. They also say that parents should consider limiting the baby's exposure to new people for up to three months since they don't have strong immune systems right after birth.

When leaving home

New data from the CDC suggests that fully vaccinated people who get a breakthrough infection can still spread the virus to the unvaccinated. Some experts suggest that families make a decision based on their personal situation and risk levels. (Ex: if anyone is immunocompromised.) And they should also factor in where they’re going when they leave their homes (ex: a grocery store or a park), the infection rate in their community, etc.

When it comes to kids playing with other unvaccinated children, experts say they likely don’t need a mask if they’re playing outdoors. But the risk increases indoors – and many experts suggest that unvaccinated kids should keep their masks on if playing inside with others who also aren’t vaccinated.

When at school

School districts, cities, and states may have different guidelines for students and teachers in K-12 schools. (Note: Here’s a helpful map to check where states stand on mask mandates in school.) And now as delta continues to cause a spike in infections, the CDC is saying that students two years and older, staff, teachers, and visitors should mask up — even if they’re vaccinated.

In addition to masking up, the agency recommends that schools keep a three-foot distance between kids in classrooms. And says that testing, ventilation, practicing good hygiene (aka washing your hands), and staying home when sick can also help keep schools safe.

In July, the CDC updated its guidance for fully vaccinated people after the delta variants forced a rise in infections — especially in areas that have low vaccination rates (like Arkansas and Louisiana). The American Academy of Pediatrics also released new COVID-19 guidance in July for students and staff who are returning to the classroom. They echo the CDC’s recommendation that everyone over the age of two wear a mask — regardless of vaccination status.

When traveling

The CDC says that travel increases the risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 and that people should delay travel unless they’re fully vaccinated. But it’s no surprise that many Americans are itching to get away after more than a year without traveling.

Experts say this is another situation where families should assess the risk based on their own circumstances and determine whether they feel comfortable getting away. They also say that if people do travel, they may want to consider less risky options. Like driving a car instead of flying, or planning outdoor excursions instead of staying indoors. Another tip: families should do their research before booking a trip or traveling. Places may have testing or quarantine requirements for travelers. And the delta variant – a highly contagious variant that’s been found around the world – may cause families to reconsider their travel plans.

If you’re still not sure if certain activities are safe for you and your family, this online risk calculator might help.


While we’re no stranger to COVID-19 by this point, there is still some uncertainty around how to best keep unvaccinated kids safe while parents get their shots. And the delta variant is causing new issues as parents navigate school reopening. Experts say if you’re not sure how to handle a situation, err on the side of caution. Because whether you’re a child or you’re fully vaccinated, no one is 100% immune to the virus.

Last updated Aug 20 — Updated to include the record-breaking hospitalizations of children and the latest guidance from the CDC on schools and masks.

Last updated July 28 — Updated to include the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation on masking in schools.

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich and Kamini Ramdeen

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