CDC study finds masking works in schools — just as mandates lift across the country

·7 min read
Elementary school students wearing masks tend to an assignment in class.
Masks are optional for public school children in New York City from Kindergarten and above, but as of March 7, students and teachers at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in Manhattan's Chinatown were still wearing them. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates about the ongoing situation.

CDC study finds masking reduces COVID-19 cases in schools

A large new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that masking reduced COVID-19 transmission in schools by nearly 25%. The study's release, however, coincided with the lifting of school mask mandates in states across the country.

The study analyzed data from 233 public school districts in Arkansas from August through October 2021, and found that districts that required masking in school buildings had a 23% lower rate of COVID-19 cases among students and staff than those without mandates. About one-third of the districts required universal masking, a fifth required masks under certain circumstances, and half had no masking policies in place.

"Masks remain an important part of a multicomponent approach to prevent COVID-19 in K–12 settings, especially in communities with high levels of COVID-19," the authors of the study concluded.

Related video: Many states and cities are dropping their mask mandates for schools

The timing is interesting, given that many school districts across the country have now gone maskless, but infectious disease doctors say it's time to move forward without mandates. "There are always going to be cases in schools, and masks will help decrease cases," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "But increasingly, we're not so much worried about cases and more worried about severe disease. Policies will have to reflect serious cases, and you shouldn't revert to virtual learning every time you have cases. If they're mild, that's a win."

Cases across the country are dropping, which bolsters the case for the end of mask mandates, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. "It seems like the country is on a downward trajectory for new cases," he says.

However, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that "We will likely see a bump in cases with the lifting of mask mandates, while there is still COVID out there." He doesn't anticipate, though, that it will be a large one.

San Diego students will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 next year

San Diego Unified School District board members voted unanimously on Tuesday for a resolution that will carry out the district’s student COVID-19 vaccination requirements for the 2022-23 school year. The district's previous vaccine requirement for students was disrupted by a lawsuit. However, a stay of that ruling was granted on Feb. 1.

"The district's intention in establishing a student vaccine mandate has always been to protect the health of students and create a safe learning environment," school officials say on the district's website. Under the mandate, students will need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, as it received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for their age group. Right now, the FDA has only fully approved the vaccine for children ages 16 and up. All others are eligible to be vaccinated under an emergency use authorization (EUA).

The San Diego Unified School District will start implementing the mandate in August, but will allow for "narrow medical exemptions," noting that "religious or personal belief exemptions will not be permitted."

Unvaccinated students without medical exemptions will not be allowed to participate in in-person learning or extracurricular activities, district officials say. Summer school students will also need to follow the vaccine mandate.

Students who want to participate in extracurricular activities during the fall semester need to get their first dose of the vaccine by Aug. 6. Everyone else must have their first shot by Sept. 6.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, previously passed a vaccine mandate for students. It has also been deferred until fall 2022.

Experts expect more districts to follow."I both hope and anticipate more districts will approve COVID vaccine mandates," Russo says. "COVID is not going away. Therefore, vaccination is the best way to keep our schools safe."

Watkins, however says this is unlikely to be the case across the country. "It will more likely have to do with the local political situation," he says. Adalja agrees. "It will probably be a school district-by-school district thing, although it may eventually be statewide, as states usually set requirements for vaccinations," he says. Still, he doesn't anticipate vaccines being required for each age group until they are approved by the FDA.

Hawaii makes outdoor masking optional for students

The Hawaii State Department of Education announced this week that it will make outdoor masking optional on all public school campuses — months after the CDC updated its guidance for schools to say that outdoor masking is unnecessary in many situations. The requirement was lifted on Wednesday, but indoor masking continues to be required.

Masking has been required indoors and outside "as an added protection" since the start of the school year, the state's Department of Education said in a press release. "It's encouraging to see our indicators trending in the right direction to allow us to make this change," interim superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement. "We're seeing COVID case counts at our public schools continue to decline for the seventh straight week, and weekly rates are down 98% from January's Omicron surge peak."

CDC guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools, which was updated in early January, states, "in general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors." However, the agency recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or "during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people."

"The risk of infection is low in the outdoor setting," Russo says. "However, individuals at increased risk for severe disease should consider wearing a mask when there is ongoing spread of COVID in the community and they anticipate being in close quarters with other individuals for a prolonged period."

Watkins agrees. "If someone is in a large crowd and can't socially distance, then wearing a mask might still be a good idea," he says. "Otherwise, wearing one outdoors probably isn't needed at this point."

Spring break looms as COVID restrictions lift across the country

Spring break starts in many colleges and K-12 schools across the country this month, and infectious disease experts expect COVID-19 cases to follow.

"When there's social interaction, there are going to be cases," Adalja says. However, he adds, the majority of these cases will be in low-risk patients who may be vaccinated. Russo agrees. "Travel and spring break-related activities increase the risk of COVID," he says. "Hopefully, a bump in cases will be minimized or not realized, due to the decreasing amount of COVID in most locales in this country."

To help people stay safe, Russo recommends getting vaccinated (if you haven't already), wearing a mask in crowded situations where COVID-19 cases are high, and practicing good hand hygiene. For children who are too young to be vaccinated, he recommends focusing on outdoor activities, just to be safe. "Immunity is way better for this break than the last, but is still imperfect," he says.

More than 81% of the U.S. population over the age of 5 have had at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Watkins is hopeful that this, combined with the fact that a huge wave of people who were recently infected during the Omicron wave, will help keep new cases to a minimum. "Hopefully, there have been enough people who are either vaccinated or have gotten COVID, that we won't see a spike in cases over the next couple of weeks," he says.

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