July 9 (UPI) -- Students in grades K-12 who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can go without masks at school this fall, according to new guidelines released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Their classmates who have not had their shots, however, still should wear masks, the CDC said.
The new guidelines, which are recommendations and not requirements, come after the CDC cleared the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for use in children ages 12 and older in May.
Still, many school districts across the country already have lifted mask mandates ahead of the start of the 2021-22 school year, agency officials acknowledged.
Due to the widespread availability of vaccines, about 13% of counties across the country are reporting high levels of community coronavirus transmission, down from roughly 90% in December, the CDC said.
But the agency said this could change with the ongoing spread of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.
With congressional approval of the American Rescue Plan, "schools have access to unprecedented resources to implement health and safety measures," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement supporting the new CDC guidelines.
These measures will enable schools "to best accommodate students for full-time in-person learning, and to address our students' social, emotional, and academic needs" while allowing students back into classrooms and school buildings to learn, he said.
The new CDC guidelines do not stipulate how schools can and should collect accurate information regarding student and staff vaccination status.
As a result, "universal masking" remains the safest way to protect those who are not fully vaccinated, officials said.
Twenty-four percent of children ages 12 to 15 and 36% of those ages 16 and 17 nationally are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
However, 56% of parents of currently unvaccinated children ages 12 to 17 surveyed by the CDC reported they would "definitely" or "probably" have their children receive the shots.