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How long will it take to see the impact mask mandates have in schools?

Experts at USF said that's a tough question because of community spread.

TAMPA, Fla — Professors at the University of South Florida said it's too soon and difficult to know if mask mandates in schools are lowering COVID cases. Professors explained science shows they protect people, especially in a school setting.

Professors point out, masks are a part of the solution, but not the solution. 

“I think the problem here is the mask mandates in the schools isn’t a fix to a problem necessarily. It’s trying to make schools safe," the Associate Dean for the College of Medicine, Michael Teng said.

Teng used an analogy to explain that point, “It’s like wearing a seatbelt. You’re not trying to fix the problem of a car crash. You’re trying to make sure that things are safe as possible so that if there is a crash, you don’t have a lot of bodily damage. This is the same things with the masks."

Teng explained most kids are getting sick outside of school, but bringing it into school. “Most of the kids that are getting infected are getting infected somewhere else," Teng stated.

That's where community spread comes into this conversation. 

Jay Wolfson serves as the Senior Associate Dean for the Morsani College of Medicine at USF and explained because of community spread, a lot is hard to measure. 

“If you wear them in schools that’s very important because you’re creating a bubble in that environment. That protects a part of the population, but when you leave the school and they go home, church, the store, play with their friends, they may or may not get something there," Wolfson added.

Wolfson said if students were in boarding school, it would be easier to measure how well masks are working to bring down cases. Since public schools send kids back home and out into the community, it's hard to know. 

"If these were boarding schools and we controlled the environment 24 hours a day, we would be able to see a whole lot more of what works and what doesn’t work," Wolfson said.

Looking at local data, Pinellas County Public School's dashboard reported there are an increase in positive cases and the number of people impacted week by week. In Pinellas County Public Schools, masks are optional for students. Whereas in Hillsborough County Public Schools, masks are required unless a student has a medical condition opt-out. 

On Hillsborough County's dashboard reported cases are decreasing week by week. In recent weeks, reported cases decreased by thousands.

Both professors agreed masking in schools is an important measure to take to protect yourself. 

“The idea here is if you have a mask mandate and everyone’s wearing a mask then transmission is going to be lower. If you’re talking through the mask then most of that is going to get caught up in the mask," Teng explained.

Bottom line, these professors said masks can help keep you from getting sick. 

“They are a part of preventing and reducing the likelihood of kids getting exposed and sick," Wolfson stated.

With time, Wolfson said we will learn more about the impact masking has in schools. “Public health looks to the long view, not the instant gratification. Masks are not the solution, they are a part of a solution," Wolfson added.