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HomeMorbidity & Mortality Weekly Reportindex/list_12208_1SARS-CoV-2 Incidence in K–12 School Districts With Mask-Required Versus Mask-Optional Policies

SARS-CoV-2 Incidence in K–12 School Districts With Mask-Required Versus Mask-Optional Policies

Abstract and Introduction

Introduction

Masks are effective at limiting transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,[1] but the impact of policies requiring masks in school settings has not been widely evaluated.[2–4] During fall 2021, some school districts in Arkansas implemented policies requiring masks for students in kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12). To identify any association between mask policies and COVID-19 incidence, weekly school-associated COVID-19 incidence in school districts with full or partial mask requirements was compared with incidence in districts without mask requirements during August 23–October 16, 2021. Three analyses were performed: 1) incidence rate ratios (IRRs) were calculated comparing districts with full mask requirements (universal mask requirement for all students and staff members) or partial mask requirements (e.g., masks required in certain settings, among certain populations, or if specific criteria could not be met) with school districts with no mask requirement; 2) ratios of observed-to-expected numbers of cases, by district were calculated; and 3) incidence in districts that switched from no mask requirement to any mask requirement were compared before and after implementation of the mask policy. Mean weekly district-level attack rates were 92–359 per 100,000 persons in the community* and 137–745 per 100,000 among students and staff members; mean student and staff member vaccination coverage ranged from 13.5% to 18.6%. Multivariable adjusted IRRs, which included adjustment for vaccination coverage, indicated that districts with full mask requirements had 23% lower COVID-19 incidence among students and staff members compared with school districts with no mask requirements. Observed-to-expected ratios for full and partial mask policies were lower than ratios for districts with no mask policy but were slightly higher for districts with partial policies than for those with full mask policies. Among districts that switched from no mask requirement to any mask requirement (full or partial), incidence among students and staff members decreased by 479.7 per 100,000 (p<0.01) upon implementation of the mask policy. In areas with high COVID-19 community levels, masks are an important part of a multicomponent prevention strategy in K–12 settings.[5]

COVID-19 incidence among K–12 students and staff members in Arkansas public school districts with different mask policies was investigated during August 23–October 16, 2021. Mask policies were defined as follows: 1) full (universal mask requirement for all students and staff members); 2) partial (masks required in certain settings [e.g., in classrooms but not in gym or music class], among certain populations [e.g., only certain grades, only students or staff members, or only unvaccinated persons], or if specific criteria [e.g., physical distancing ≥6 feet]) could not be met); and 3) none (masks not required in the school setting). Consistent with a Federal Order in place during the investigation period, all persons were required to wear masks while on school buses.[6]

District-level data were compiled from the Arkansas Department of Health’s (ADH’s) COVID-19 surveillance database and immunization registry, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s mask policy database, and Arkansas Department of Education’s 2021–22 enrollment and 2019 free or reduced-cost school lunch databases. Four districts (2%) were excluded, including three serving special needs populations (blind, deaf, and incarcerated persons) and 1 year-round district.§

Data were analyzed using three different approaches: 1) IRRs and 95% CIs were used to compare districts with full or partial mask requirements to those with no mask requirements; 2) ratios of observed-to-expected numbers of cases were estimated by district (given the underlying weekly community COVID-19 incidence)** using negative binomial generalized estimating equation models with autoregressive correlation structure; and 3) associations between mask policy and COVID-19 incidence were estimated using a comparative interrupted time series model among students and staff members in a subset of 26 districts†† that began the school year without a mask requirement and subsequently transitioned to full or partial mask requirements.§§

District-level mask policies¶¶ (the exposure) were included in analyses based on the policy in place 1 week before school-associated COVID-19 incidence (the outcome) was measured.*** IRRs and ratios of observed-to-expected case numbers were adjusted for district-wide weekly COVID-19 non–school-associated (community) attack rates, district-wide weekly staff member and student vaccination coverage,††† and the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-cost school lunches (as a proxy for socioeconomic status and educational disadvantage).[7] Weekly district-level vaccination coverage rates among students and staff members were calculated from the ADH immunization registry, which was matched to school district enrollment and staffing data based on name and date of birth. Sensitivity analyses were also conducted to evaluate the impact of varying lag times between the exposure and outcome and to investigate variations by grade level and vaccine eligibility.§§§ Statistical analyses were completed with SAS (version 9.4; SAS Institute). Statistical significance was defined as p<0.05. This project was reviewed and approved by ADH and CDC and was conducted consistent with applicable federal law and CDC policy.¶¶¶

During the investigation, statewide COVID-19 community transmission levels declined from substantial to moderate, and vaccination coverage increased.**** Among 233 included public school districts, 30%, 21%, and 48% had full, partial, or no mask policies, respectively, at baseline (August 22–28, 2021). Mean weekly district-level COVID-19 incidence among students and staff members was consistently higher than community incidence and decreased over time from 745 per 100,000 (August 29–September 4) to 137 per 100,000 (October 10–16); mean weekly school district level student and staff member vaccination coverage increased from 13.5% to 18.6% during the same period. COVID-19 incidence among students and staff members was 23% lower in districts with full mask policies than in districts with no mask policy (IRR = 0.77 [95% CI = 0.66–0.88]), 24% lower among staff members only (IRR = 0.76 [95% CI = 0.64–0.90]), and 23% lower among students only (IRR = 0.77 [95% CI = 0.66–0.89]) (Table). IRRs comparing districts with partial mask policies with those with no mask policy were not statistically significant (IRR = 0.88 [95% CI = 0.77–1.01] for students and staff members, 0.85 [95% CI = 0.71–1.02] for staff members only, and 0.89 [95% CI = 0.77–1.03] for students only).

Ratios comparing observed-to-expected cases among students and staff members exceeded 1.0 for all groups (students only, staff members only, and combined students and staff members) and mask policies (Figure 1) (Supplementary Figure, https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/115046). The ratios of observed-to-expected cases for school districts with full mask policies for students only (1.50; 95% CI = 1.33–1.70); staff members only (1.69; 95% CI = 1.35–2.07) and combined students and staff members (1.52; 95% CI = 1.35–1.72) were lower than the ratios for no mask policy (students only: 2.06 [95% CI = 1.86–2.26]; staff members only: 2.44 [95% CI = 2.02–2.90] combined students and staff members: 2.10 [95% CI = 1.92–2.30]. Observed-to-expected ratios for school districts with partial mask policies were also lower than ratios for no mask policies, but slightly higher than those in districts with full mask policies.

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Figure 1.

Mean estimates* of the ratio of observed school district cases to expected school district cases among students (A) and staff members (B), based on surrounding community incidence, by mask requirement status — 233 school districts, Arkansas, August–October 2021
*The mean estimates were calculated by drawing 5,000 random bootstrap samples from the dataset and averaging over all school districts with the same mask policy within each sample. The reference line at 1.0 implies that the school district incidence equals the community incidence. Vertical lines for each mask policy are the means for the 5,000 bootstrap samples and illustrate the difference of the group’s mean relative to the reference line. For example, the student and staff member mask group means are 1.50 and 1.69, which indicates that the mean incidences among students and staff members in school districts with mask requirements are 50% and 69% higher, respectively, than the mean incidence in their surrounding communities.

Among 26 districts that switched from no mask policy to any policy (full or partial) during the investigation, COVID-19 incidences for student and staff members were higher than those in the community during the period with no mask policy (estimated difference at baseline = 891.8 per 100,000, p<0.01). However, a week after implementation of a mask policy, the incidence among students and staff members decreased significantly (estimated point reduction in incidence = 479.7 per 100,000; p<0.01). Although the incidence among community members decreased at the same time (estimated point reduction in community incidence = 104.6 per 100,000, p<0.01), there was a significantly higher rate of reduction in incidence among students and staff members compared with that in community members (estimated difference in point reduction = 375.0 per 100,000; p<0.01) (Figure 2).

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Figure 2.

Student and staff member and community SARS-CoV-2 infection rates before and after* implementation of school mask requirement — 26 school districts, Arkansas, August–October 2021
*Weeks were standardized to align the time before (negative values) and after (positive values) the district changed from no mask requirement to partial or full mask requirement. Time zero indicates the week the policy changed from none to full or partial mask requirement, and the first weekly incidence under a mask requirement policy was measured during the following week. Upon implementation of the mask policy, the incidence among students and staff members decreased by 479.7 per 100,000. Incidence among community members decreased at the same time by 104.6 per 100,000, a difference of 375.0 per 100,000.

Sensitivity analyses demonstrated consistent findings. Analyses with 0-, 2-, and 3-week lag times were consistent with the initial analysis. Stratification by school level (grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12) did not change the main results (Table). Adjusted student estimates stratified by vaccine-eligible (grades 7–12) and -ineligible (K–6) grade levels did not significantly differ from the unstratified estimates. Among vaccine eligible-grades, IRRs decreased with increasing student vaccination coverage. IRRs standardized to the surrounding community incidence were consistent with reported IRRs.

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