July 19 (UPI) -- All students, teachers and staff older than age 2 should wear masks in schools to protect against COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended Monday.
In newly updated guidance for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, the organization of 67,000 pediatricians and other children's health specialists also said it is "strongly encouraging" COVID-19 vaccinations for anyone eligible.
"The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it's not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health," Dr. Sonja O'Leary, chairwoman of the AAP Council on School Health, said in a release.
"Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone."
The AAP said it is recommending universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines and masks are "proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated."
Universal masking is "the most effective strategy to create consistent messages and expectations among students without the added burden of needing to monitor everyone's vaccination status," added Dr. Sara Bode, chairwoman-elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee.
Masks in schools are especially needed in parts of the country where vaccination rates are low, the group said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last week the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus is spreading particularly in areas of the country that have lower vaccination rates.
The federal agency, however, recommends fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff don't need to wear masks at school.