Student Well-Being What the Research Says

CDC: COVID Outbreaks Far Higher at Schools Without Mask Mandates

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 24, 2021 3 min read
Two students wearing masks and backpacks in front of lockers.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the first month of school alone, more than 1,800 schools nationwide have been forced to close or move to virtual learning because of pandemic outbreaks, new federal data show—but schools that required universal masking were much less likely to see widespread infection.

That’s the upshot of new research on the post-Delta school landscape, released Friday afternoon by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers in two studies analyzed overall child coronavirus infections in 520 counties with different school masking policies, as well as specific outbreaks in schools in the two largest districts in Arizona.

Nearly 250 districts nationwide, as well as 384 additional individual schools, have had to close at least one day because of outbreaks since the 2021-22 school year began in August, one of the studies found. Those closures reduced in-person learning time for more than 933,000 K-12 students. Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas each had more than 250 schools closed due to outbreaks in August, with the closures in Tennessee topping 400. Both Tennessee and Texas bar school districts from requiring face masks, while Georgia and Kentucky allow school districts to decide mask mandates.

See Also

Image of a face mask on school notebook.
Steven White/iStock/Getty

In Pima and Maricopa counties in Arizona, researchers led by Megan Jehn of Arizona State University compared outbreaks in schools that required universal masking indoors from the first day of school to those in schools that implemented mask requirements later or not at all. Of about 1,000 schools in the districts, about 48 percent never required masks; 21 percent required masks from day one; and 31 percent required masks after a few weeks.

The study found schools that required all students and staff on campus to wear face masks—regardless of whether or not they were vaccinated—were 3.5 times less likely to have a coronavirus outbreak by mid-September than schools that didn’t implement masking, after controlling for other factors in the schools.

‘Past time’ to require masks, says schools chief

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, who has been fighting against Gov. Doug Ducey’s statewide ban on mask mandates, said the results suggest it is “past time” for schools to be able to require masks.

“It is irresponsible of the state government to stand in the way of local leaders making decisions that protect the health and safety of their students and staff,” Hoffman said in a tweet. “Until we have suppressed community spread by vaccinating more individuals, including children under 12, universal masking will continue to be a critical tool in limiting the spread of the virus in our schools.”

A separate study also found that nationwide, counties where schools did not require face masks had bigger jumps in the rates of children under 18 contracting COVID-19 once school started. Researchers compared child infection rates in July, before school started, to those through Sept. 4. About two weeks after the start of school—the normal range for new COVID-19 infections to show symptoms—the daily pediatric case rates jumped by about 16 per 100,000 for children in counties with school masking, compared to nearly 35 per 100,000 for children in counties without school masking.

The study covered all pediatric COVID-19 cases, not just those among school-age children, and it did not control for the levels of teacher or student vaccination in each school, but researchers pledged a follow-up study to look at these factors.

Though prior studies have also suggested masking, vaccination, and regular COVID-19 testing can reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools, states and districts have been mired in legal battles for months over whether and when to require teachers and students to wear face masks.

Tobin Novasio, the superintendent for the Lockwood school district in Montana, said he doubts research will sway policymakers in his community.

“The pendulum has kind of swung in our district, and I think the [school] board, they’re hearing so much from the anti-maskers that it’s going to be a difficult call for us to ever go to require masking,” he said. “We are implementing other mitigation strategies, but masking has become such a flashpoint. ... I think that people are so dug into their positions, that it will take personal exposure, personal impact to get people to change where they are at at this point.”

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as CDC Director Approves Booster Shots For Teachers, Reversing Panel’s Decision


Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. f we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Minnesota Offers Kids $200 and Scholarship Drawings to Get Fully Vaccinated
Minnesota is offering 12- to 17-year-olds who get COVID-19 vaccines a $200 reward and a shot at $100,000 worth of college scholarships.
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
2 min read
Illustration of syringe tied to stick
Student Well-Being Ohio Mom Gets Ordained to Sign More Than a Hundred Mask Exemption Forms for Students
An Ohio mom says she cares if someone dies or gets sick, but that forcing kids to wear masks to protect others is "psychological warfare."
Jeremy P. Kelley, Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio)
3 min read
Image of a mask being held by two hands.
Student Well-Being Research Center Reports Student Engagement During the Pandemic: Results of a National Survey
This report examines students' school engagement during the pandemic based on survey results from students and teachers.
Student Well-Being Saliva Test May Predict COVID-19 Severity Among Children, Research Finds
With cases of COVID-19 among children rising, there is an "urgent need" to understand which children are at greatest risk of severe illness.
Sarah Gantz, The Philadelphia Inquirer
2 min read
Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J. on April 29, 2021. Children are having their noses swabbed or saliva sampled at school to test for the coronavirus. As more children return to school buildings this spring, widely varying approaches have emerged on how and whether to test students and staff members for the virus.
Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J. on April 29, 2021. Children are having their noses swabbed or saliva sampled at school to test for the coronavirus. As more children return to school buildings this spring, widely varying approaches have emerged on how and whether to test students and staff members for the virus.
Seth Wenig/AP