In a surprising announcement last week, the CDC released new mask guidelines for schools that allow vaccinated students to opt out of wearing masks. Masks will still be required for students who aren’t vaccinated, which prompts a lot of questions about middle school. 

Vaccines are only available to people aged 12 or older, and middle school students range 11-14 years old. Will students be required to show vaccination cards in order to forgo masks? How will mask wearing be mandated? Will teachers be responsible for knowing which students are vaccinated? At a time in life when peer pressure is at its most persuasive, will young people be encouraged or discouraged to get vaccinated?

The 2019 Census, which has the most recent population numbers by age, counted 20,827 kids aged 10-14 years old. The CDC groups age differently for vaccine tracking data, with the first group encompassing kids aged 12-15 years old. The tracking data shows there are 5,075,646 people in that age group with at least one dose of the vaccine and 3,766,429 who are fully vaccinated.

Tracking information doesn’t include a breakdown of both race and age, but Black people overall have the lowest vaccination rates. There are 26.2% of Black people with at least one dose and only 23.6% who are fully vaccinated. That number trails by at least six percent behind other groups.

“We really have limited data on transmission of this variant in school settings, but we also don’t have any data to suggest that the layered prevention strategies would be ineffective,” Erin Sauber-Schatz, a CDC official who oversaw the school guidance, said to the Washington Post.

Layered prevention means using several strategies at once, including wearing masks, social distancing and contact tracing.

However, the new guidelines aren’t binding laws. Some states are only a month or away from the first day of school and have already implemented different rules around masking. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced in an executive order that public schools (along with all government entities) could no longer require masks starting June 5. Though there hasn’t been an official mandate yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said children shouldn’t wear masks in school. California is taking the opposite route and will continue to require everyone in the school building to wear masks.

“We’re going to start with a requirement K through 12 that the year begins with masks,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said to the Los Angeles Times. “At the outset of the new year, students should be able to walk into school without worrying about whether they will feel different or singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated — treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment.”

One of the bigger controversies during the pandemic have been people who refuse to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. So how should schools navigate students who, whether learned from their parents or due to their own beliefs, won’t mask up in the building?

With all the questions surrounding masking policies, some parents are not comfortable sending their children back for in-person learning. To accommodate these families, many school districts have hinted that they will allow children to continue remote learning, David Leonhardt wrote in his New York Times morning newsletter. He cites polls that say up to 25% of parents plan to keep their kids home.

“The families who choose to do so will span every demographic group, but they are likely to be disproportionately lower-income, Black and Latino,” Leonhardt wrote. Many studies have shown that students learn “vastly less” during virtual school.

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...