John R. Lewis Elementary School principal LaShawn McMillan, right, greets students as their dropped off for the first day of in-person learning at John R. Lewis Elementary School in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

By Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Georgia elementary schools that made teachers and other staff wear masks had a significantly lower rate of COVID-19 infection, a finding that could influence policies in the fall when younger children may still be ineligible for vaccination.

The findings from the Morbidity and Mortality and Weekly Report released Friday say that, after accounting for community infection rates, the incidence of the disease was 37% lower in schools that required teachers and staff members to use masks and 39% lower in schools that improved ventilation by opening windows and doors, using fans or in combination with air filtration.

“Mask requirements for teachers and staff members and improved ventilation are important strategies in addition to vaccination of teachers and staff members that elementary schools could implement as part of a multicomponent approach to provide safer, in-person learning environments,” the authors wrote.

Universal mask use is still recommended by the CDC for adults and children in schools regardless of vaccination status. Georgia never mandated masks in schools, leading to inconsistent policies among its 180 school districts. Some required them and others did not, often angering some percentage of parents.

Cartersville Middle School Spanish teacher Omar Nu–ez wears a face mask and a face shield while interacting with students in his classroom at Cartersville Middle School in Cartersville in this Thursday, August 20, 2020 file photo. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, said schools are under growing pressure to fully reopen without social distancing, and many are abandoning mask mandates.

“We think that’s a big mistake,” she said. “We are not out of the woods by a long shot.”

The organization is supplying its members with access to at-home COVID-19 testing kits to monitor for infection.

The new CDC study is based on a survey of 169 K–5 schools in 47 school districts. The schools had at least some students in person and reported COVID-19 cases from Nov. 16 to Dec. 11.

The CDC notes limitations in the findings, including that the infections were self-reported and the prevention strategies might have been implemented inconsistently. It said the data cannot be used to infer causal relationships, meaning that the researchers found a correlation between mask use and lower infection rates but can’t say that masks were the cause.

Earlier this year, the CDC released the findings from a study of coronavirus transmission in a Georgia school district. It found three primary ways that COVID-19 had spread through schools in Marietta: indoor winter sports, staff-to-staff contact and in elementary school classrooms where far more students had returned in person. Teachers and staff were more likely to spread the disease when they planned lessons together or ate lunch together.

Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera reacted by spreading out desks in classrooms and limiting activities that involved gathering together, like reading on the classroom rug. Teachers’ meetings were to be held online and they couldn’t eat together indoors unless spread far apart.

Rivera was among superintendents who relaxed mask rules after the CDC announced last week that it was recommending that vaccinated people no longer had to wear them in many settings. He has said he expects to start school in the fall with masks being optional.

On Friday, Fulton County Schools announced that masks will be optional starting June 1.

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