School districts that required masks this fall saw significantly fewer coronavirus cases than those where masks were optional, according to a large study of Arkansas schools by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Masks remain an important part of a multicomponent approach to preventing Covid-19 in K-12 settings, especially in communities with high Covid-19 community levels,” concluded the study, which published Tuesday.
The researchers also examined 26 school districts that instituted a mask requirement during the course of their investigation. A week after the new policy took effect, infections significantly decreased among students and staff.
The new data come as states and school districts across the country have dropped mask requirements. The CDC itself no longer recommends masks be required for the vast majority of the country. Once masks are not required, students, parents and teachers say, most students stop wearing them.
As of last week, just 15 percent of the country was in an area designated as “high,” based on a metric that takes into account case counts as well as hospital admissions. Those are the only areas where the CDC now recommends mandatory masks. The rest of the country is classified as having “medium” or “low” disease levels.
The study was conducted during the delta variant wave of coronavirus cases, and overall case rates fell over the course of the investigation. Cases spiked again during the omicron variant wave at the end of 2021 and early 2022 before dramatically dropping.
Over the course of most of the coronavirus pandemic, public health experts, including those at the CDC, emphasized the need for masks, even as public officials, particularly in more conservative parts of the country, rejected mandates, saying individuals should weigh the risks and benefits for themselves. The debate today is far less divisive given falling caseloads and a broader public consensus around a return to more normal life. Officials from both parties now favor rolling back the strictest precautions.
But if caseloads rise again, there may be pressure to reinstitute mask rules, and this new data may be instructive.
“CDC will continue to follow the data and science and ensure our recommendations meet the moment we’re in,” agency spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.
A tracker created by the American Enterprise Institute, which covers more than 8,000 school districts, shows that the number of students in districts requiring masks has been falling since the start of this school year, with big drops over the past two months. As of the week of Feb. 28, 39 percent of students were in districts that required masks in schools, and 61 percent were not.
A separate tracker charting policies at the 500 largest school districts from the data firm Burbio found that, as of this week, 31.8 percent require masks and 65.8 percent do not, with a few adopting mixed policies.
Vaccination rates in the school districts studied ranged from 13.5 to 18.6 percent of students and staff members. The study took place from August to October 2021.