Schools in Arizona that did not require staff and students to wear masks were 3-1/2 times more likely to experience COVID-19 outbreaks, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
The early look at initial findings, published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, shows that schools reported 191 outbreaks from July 15 to Aug. 31 – 113 of those outbreaks, or 59%, occurred in schools without a mask requirement. Just 16 of the reported outbreaks, or 8.4%, occured in schools that deployed mask requirements before the start of the school year, while 62 of the outbreaks, or 32.5%, occurred in schools that implemented mask requirements after the first day of school.
“In the two largest Arizona counties, with variable K-12 school masking policies at the onset of the 2021-22 academic year, the odds of a school-associated COVID-19 outbreak were 3.5 times higher in schools with no mask requirement than in those with a mask requirement implemented at the time school started,” the researchers wrote.
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Roughly half of the 2,000 public schools in Arizona’s Maricopa and Pima counties did not require masks at the start of the school year.
“Lapses in universal masking contribute to COVID-19 outbreaks in school settings,” they wrote. “Universal masking, in addition to vaccination of all eligible students, staff members, and faculty and implementation of other prevention measures, remains essential to COVID-19 prevention in K-12 settings.”
The CDC has long recommended masks as one of the most important tools to keep children safe in schools, especially for children who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
But Arizona is one of a handful of Republican-controlled states that have executive orders or state laws prohibiting school districts from mandating masks. Over the summer, Arizona’s legislature passed a budget that included language that prohibits school boards from requiring masks in schools.
At the end of August, children represented about 25% of cases in Arizona, according to the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health. And in Maricopa County alone, 1 out of every 6 COVID-19 infections occurred in children younger than 12.
The Biden administration is flexing its muscles where it can.
Last month, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into five states – Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – examining whether their bans on mask mandates in schools discriminate against students with disabilities.
The probes mark the most aggressive action by the Education Department in its efforts to support local school leaders trying to return students to school safely.
“I wanted to be very clear that we are going to protect students,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told U.S. News this week. “We are going to stand on the side of students, on the side of educators who are protecting students.”
Department officials have said they’re closely watching Arizona, Arkansas and Florida – other Republican-controlled states that have executive orders or state laws prohibiting school districts from mandating masks.
“We are going to investigate and we will see where that goes,” Cardona says. “But the message is out there that we will not allow for states to punish leaders who are trying to protect children.”