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No, CDC study cited in Florida mask trial does not show ‘no rationale’ for masking students

The study found student cases of COVID-19 were 21 percent lower in schools where masks were required, but this result is not considered “statistically significant.”

TAMPA, Fla. — A circuit court judge might have knocked down the state’s order banning local school boards from imposing mask mandates, but the battle in Florida remains far from finished.

Gov. DeSantis’ office has already promised an appeal of the ruling.

During the trial, attorneys for the state and opponents of school mask mandates frequently cited a recent CDC study to support their position. In one such instance, it was claimed the study showed “no rationale” for masking in schools.

THE QUESTION

Does a recent CDC study show “no rationale” for students to wear masks in school?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

No, a recent CDC study does not conclude there is “no rationale” for students to wear masks in school.

WHAT WE FOUND

The study, published in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), included 90,000 students and analyzed mask use and ventilation in Georgia elementary schools between November and December 2020.

Researchers looked at the difference in incidences of COVID-19 among teachers and staff, as well as students, between schools where masks were required and schools where masks were optional.

RELATED: Poll: 60 percent of Floridians support mask mandates in schools

Ultimately the study found cases of COVID-19 in students were 21 percent lower in schools where masks were required. But researchers stated the result was not statistically significant when compared to schools where mask use was optional.

“You’re right it’s not statistically significant but the evidence is still that masking is having an effect,” said Justin Lessler, a University of North Carolina epidemiologist who has lead his own peer-reviewed research on masking students.

Here's how Lessler explains statistical significance from a scientific standpoint.

"Statistical significance is not a measure of what the evidence is, it’s a measure of how strong the evidence is," he said.

Ultimately, he said, the study is showing mask-wearing had an effect.

"It’s just showing our evidence for that effect is not as strong as it might be in a larger study or a study that had a better comparison group," he explained.

Lessler said it’s also important to consider that the Georgia study isn’t the only one on masking in schools.

A CDC science brief listing six studies on COVID-19 transmission in schools said, “most studies that have shown success in limiting transmission in schools have required that staff only or staff and students wear masks as one of the school’s prevention strategies."

“When we look at the full spectrum of evidence it’s pretty clear masks have a benefit," Lessler said. "The only question is how big is that benefit.”

RELATED: Florida withholds salaries of school board members in 2 districts for requiring face masks

Dr. Nicole Iovine points out researchers did see a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases when staff and teachers were masked. The study showed incidence of COVID-19 were 37 percent lower in schools where staff were required to wear masks and 39 percent lower in schools with improved ventilation.

Iovine said this finding, when compared to students, also goes to show the limitations of the study when it comes to how well mask use was enforced and whether they were worn correctly.

“It’s very unlikely that masks only work when you’re an adult,” she said. “What the interpretation of this would be is that there’s something different in the mask wearing behavior of students compared to adults—so that’s likely what the reason is for why it’s not necessarily statistically significant (for students).”

The study also states that the “findings in this report suggest universal and correct mask use is an important COVID-19 prevention strategy in schools as part of a multicomponent approach."

   

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