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Mask requirements in schools reduced coronavirus cases, CDC finds

Many school districts across the country are dropping mask requirements in classrooms. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

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.

The CDC looked at 233 school districts and found those with mask requirements saw a 23 percent lower incidence of coronavirus cases. Rates in districts with partial requirements — for instance, places that required them in hallways but not classrooms — were in between.

“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.

‘A very toxic environment’: Virginia students navigate ugly mask battles

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.

Peer pressure is ending mask usage in schools

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.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.