CDC: Schools Without Mask Mandates More Likely to Have COVID-19 Outbreaks

Key Takeaways

  • A new CDC study shows that schools without mask requirements are 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks.
  • Mask-wearing is especially crucial since not all children are eligible for the vaccine yet.
  • Experts say families, communities, and school administrators must employ a combination of several safety measures to further reduce the risk of infections.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that schools without masking requirements are 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak than those that required masking when the school year began.

The researchers analyzed data from almost 1,000 K-12 public schools in Maricopa and Pima counties in Arizona. Out of the recorded 191 school-associated outbreaks:

  • 16 occurred in schools with established mask requirements before the school year
  • 62 occurred in schools that implemented mask requirements after the school year began
  • 113 occurred in schools without a mask requirement
How to Reduce COVID-19 Risk in Children

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

The results of the study highlight the importance and effectiveness of mask mandates in preventing COVID-19 infections in schools. Experts say a variety of strategies must be utilized to further reduce the risk of infection and make in-person learning a safer environment.

Establishing Mask Mandates Is Crucial

Since the start of the pandemic, public health experts have promoted the use of face masks to protect the wearer from COVID-19 and curb outbreaks. More than a year and a half later, many studies provide additional evidence that masking is highly effective at preventing infection, even amid the Delta variant surge.

“Until all children are eligible to receive COVID vaccines, masking is the next best defense against contracting and spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Leslie Sude, MD, Yale Medicine pediatrician and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. “Masks provide a physical barrier to respiratory droplet spread, and the virus spreads via respiratory droplets. No droplet spread; no virus spread.”

In addition to the aforementioned study, a different CDC analysis found that pediatric COVID-19 cases increased much faster in counties without school mask requirements during the start of the school year, compared to those with mask requirements already in place. These show how crucial mask-wearing is when it comes to in-person learning.

“Consistent mask-wearing is one of the best ways to keep students and staff in K-12 schools safe, especially while children under 12 don’t yet have access to vaccinations,” Elizabeth Stuart, PhD, professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “Mask mandates help set a community behavioral norm, where everyone is doing their part to keep themselves and those around them safe.”

What This Means For You

To prevent your children from getting COVID-19, make sure to send them to school wearing well-fitting masks. If they are over 12 years old, you can protect them even further by getting them vaccinated. You can find available appointments here.

Reducing the Risk of COVID-19 Cases in Kids

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend universal masking for students older than 2 years and all school staff in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. 

However, some states have passed legislation banning mask requirements in school districts, which means that school-associated outbreaks are more likely to occur. President Biden’s new six-part COVID-19 action plan addresses this, which aims to ensure that all schools will implement science-based prevention strategies, including universal indoor masking.

Aside from mask-wearing, there are other important tools to keep children safe in school, Stuart says, which include:

  • Vaccinating as many people as possible
  • Improving ventilation in school buildings
  • Testing regularly for COVID-19
  • Avoiding indoor crowding

“Schools should also be looking for creative ways for kids to be outdoors as much as possible, especially when eating or drinking,” Stuart adds. “Many schools are using outdoor spaces for snacks and lunch.”

Parents can also help protect their kids by having them wear a mask in public and setting a good example by wearing masks as well, opting for lower-risk outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated individuals, and working with other people in the community to communicate the value of masking and vaccination.

“While there may be some benefits from the environmental modifications schools have made with plexiglass barriers and air circulation, the best protection is through creating an immunity shield around the children,” Sude says. “This means all vaccine-eligible people who have contact with children should be vaccinated, creating a protective bubble, and decreasing the risk of virus spread to children. We need the older teens and adults in our children’s lives to serve as a collective shield against the virus until we can offer vaccination to younger children.”

A layered approach with different mitigation strategies is the best way to keep kids protected, experts say.

“Once we see vaccination levels near what is needed for herd immunity, children will benefit from the protection their vaccinated community provides for them,” Sude adds.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jehn M, McCullough JM, Dale AP, et al. Association between K–12 school mask policies and school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. Published online September 24, 2021. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7039e1

  2. Budzyn SE, Panaggio MJ, Parks SE, et al. Pediatric COVID-19 cases in counties with and without school mask requirements — United States, July 1–September 4, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. Published online September 24, 2021. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7039e3

  3. White House. Path out of the pandemic.

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.