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CDC: Arizona schools without required masks are 3.5 times more likely to see COVID outbreaks

TUSD moves to keep mask mandate in district schools

Schools in Maricopa and Pima counties that don't require face coverings to protect students from COVID-19 are 3.5 times more likely to experience an outbreak of the disease, a study published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control shows.

Led by Arizona State University, the study reviewed 999 K-12 public schools from July 15 to August 31. There were 191 outbreaks of COVID-19 linked to Pima and Maricopa schools during that time, and of those, 59.2 percent occurred at schools that did not have a mask requirement.

"The findings reinforce and give credence to the existing guidance from the CDC and Pima County: Universal mask wearing in schools is absolutely an essential part of a layered mitigation strategy against the spread of COVID-19," said Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen, who authored the study with the county's Schools COVID-19 liaison Brian Eller and five other authors.

For months, the CDC has recommended universal indoor masking by students, staff members, faculty, and visitors in schools, "regardless of vaccination status" to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

However, laws passed by the state Legislature and signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey over the summer turned universal masking, quarantines, and vaccination mandates into a political fight. And, as the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus dramatically ramped up cases just before schools began opening, several major districts implemented their own mandates in spite of the law—including Tucson's largest district, Tucson Unified School District.

Before the release of the study, TUSD's Governing Board voted Thursday night to maintain the mandate that teachers and students wear masks on campus.

The findings of the study were welcomed by Arizona's top school official.

"New data from Arizona schools shows what public health experts have been telling our governor for months: universal masking keeps students learning in person," said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona superintendent for public instruction. "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," she said.

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"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," said Hoffman, a Democrat.

Schools in Maricopa and Pima Counties account for more than 75 percent of Arizona's student population, the researchers said, and they evaluated the link between schools that had mask policies, and were open for school. Some schools had early mask mandates put in place at the beginning of the school year, while others were implemented weeks later.

Of the 191 outbreaks linked to schools, just 8.4 percent happened in schools that set up mask requirement early, while around 32.5 of outbreaks occurred in schools that implemented mask mandates later in the year.

A school-associated outbreak was defined as the occurrence of two or more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff members at the school within a 14-day period and at least seven calendar days after school started.

"Given the high transmissibility of [the Delta variant] 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 authors wrote.

The study arrives within days of a looming deadline for school districts throughout the state that implemented mask mandates in spite of Arizona's HB 2898 which "prohibits counties, cities, towns, schools, and school districts from requiring students or staff to wear a face-covering during school hours and on school property."

In late June, the Legislature tucked three bills into a last-minute, must-pass budget reconciliation package that was quickly signed into law by Gov. Ducey. Despite the bills, on June 30, facing a rising number of COVID-19 cases as students prepared to go back to school, Phoenix Union High Schools said that it would require masks. This was followed by TUSD.

Within weeks, at least 14 school districts across the state implemented mask mandates, including Amphitheater Public Schools, Flowing Wells Unified School District, Sunnyside Unified School District, Catalina Foothils School District. Overall, nearly 85,000 students are included in these districts.

On Thursday night, TUSD's school board voted unanimously to keep its mask requirement, even in the face of pressure from Ducey, who announced two moves to punish school districts for implementing mask mandates using federal dollars. One will give public schools and charters "following all state laws and remaining open for in-person instruction as of August 27 and throughout the remainder of the school year" funding through the  Education Plus Up Grant. The second will give parents up to $7,000 to leave districts that have decided to implement mask mandates, quarantine students exposed to COVID-19, or have been forced to close because of outbreaks.

Pima County officials said that the Health Department "has and continues to work closely with all county K-12 schools — public, charter, and private — assisting in COVID-19 mitigation, testing and vaccinations."

"PCHD continues to support CDC guidelines, which recommend that K-12 schools implement universal indoor masking as part of a layered prevention strategy," county officials said. 

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Schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to experience an outbreak of the disease, according to a CDC study evaluating schools in Maricopa and Pima Counties.

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