TAMPA, Fla. — Earlier this week the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education sent a letter to superintendents asking them to enact voluntary face mask policies for the 2021-2022 school year.
The letter said, "the data shows us that districts' face covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus" but did not detail the evidence.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that, at this time, "masks be worn at all times, by all people in school facilities, with certain exceptions for certain people, or for certain settings or activities, such as while eating or drinking."
10 Tampa Bay obtained the specific research the Department referenced. Here's what they said:
- 2020-2021 school year face covering policies by district (attached) - 27 county school districts had optional face covering policies; and 40 county school districts had required face covering policies.
- District populations – Defined by county school district eligibility for sparsity funds in the FEFP found on page 6, column 7 here: Florida Education Finance Program.
- Positivity rates by district - Weekly FDOH positivity rates here: Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard (arcgis.com) and historical positivity rates here: Home | Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Outbreak (floridahealthcovid19.gov).
- Preliminary survey 3 data from school districts (attached)
The review of this data showed no link between face mask policies and counties’ positivity rates.
The Department compared districts with mandatory face mask requirements versus districts with optional mask policies. They took into account the populations to determine positivity rates by district and concluded that mask mandates did not make a difference in the spread of COVID-19.
10 Tampa Bay sent the Department of Education's explanation of data to Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a Distinguished Health Professor at the University of South Florida. Unnasch is the Co-director of the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at USF and keeps his own data on transmission and vaccination rates along with calculating the reproductive rate of COVID-19 every few days in Tampa Bay counties.
Unnasch is skeptical of the conclusion made by the Florida Commissioner of Education because Unnasch says there wasn't enough data collected.
"It’s really easy to underpower a study and then say, well we never saw an effect. If you don’t have enough people enrolled or enough observations, chances are you’re not going to see an effect so you have to look at a lot more numbers, I think," said Unnasch.
The research didn't account for other factors like additional mitigation efforts taken by schools or how many children had COVID-19 but went undetected.
"Children who get this, are mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic, much of the time, so they were never going to get tested," he said.
Unnasch said you'd have to put at least 2,000 children wearing masks in a school compared to 2,000 children not wearing masks and then test every child, every day to make any sound judgment on the matter.
"Making the conclusion that masks really didn’t make a difference, the mandatory ones in the schools, is a little disingenuous. I don’t think there’s enough data there to come to that conclusion, he added.
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