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Data shows school mask policy in Alachua County has no impact on COVID-19 cases

ANALYSIS

BY LEN CABRERA

Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) required masks of everyone on school property, with exemptions only for those with notes from specific medical professionals, from the first day of school on August 10 through October 18; starting October 19, high school students were allowed to provide parental opt-out forms, while grades K-8 are still required to wear masks unless they have a medical exemption.

P.K. Yonge, a K-12 laboratory school in Gainesville that is part of the State University System, has had a policy during that same time that masks are “expected, not required.” P.K. Yonge’s site goes on to say, “Members of the P.K. Yonge community will be at liberty to make their own decisions regarding the use of masks while at school.”

The Alachua County School Board has brought in University of Florida medical professionals at multiple meetings this year to explain that masks are necessary to protect children, staff, and families. School Board Member Tina Certain said on August 17, “Our greatest tool that we have in our bag is masking.” Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon issued a statement on August 20 that said, in part, “[W]e believe universal masking is absolutely critical to keeping schools open, protecting the health of our students and staff, and limiting the current strain on our local healthcare system.” The school district has fought the Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Education, the governor, and parents, both in the media and in the courts, to keep universal masking in place in schools.

Since the students at ACPS and P.K. Yonge live in the same community, a comparison of case rates in the two school systems should show a difference if a mask mandate is “absolutely critical,” so we looked at the COVID-19 case data reported by each for this school year to see if the mask mandate made a difference.

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Both ACPS and P.K. Yonge provide weekly COVID-19 reports, reporting on Sundays and Fridays, respectively. The links go to the data shown here, using Friday dates for simplicity. The right-hand columns normalize the case rates by the numbers of students/staff in each system, using 31,746 students/staff for ACPS and 1,370 for P.K. Yonge. The numbers of students for ACPS and P.K. Yonge come from Florida Department of Education. The faculty and staff numbers come from P.K. Yonge directly and the National Center for Education Statistics for ACPS.   

The average weekly cases per 1,000 students, staff, and faculty is slightly less for P.K. Yonge (3.2 for P.K. Yonge vs. 3.9 for ACPS), but the difference is not statistically significant. The chart shows that the weekly numbers and pattern have been very similar despite the difference in masking policies. 

This analysis avoids the typical confounders of different community spread at different times in neighboring counties, different demographics, and different ways of counting cases; it shows clearly that the mask mandate in Alachua County Public Schools led to almost exactly the same results as P.K. Yonge’s policy of “expecting” masks. In fact, P.K. Yonge did slightly better.

This analysis does not examine the efficacy of masks but rather the data in schools with and without mask mandates, and in two months of data, some of which is from the peak of the Delta wave, there is no evidence that mask mandates kept schools open (according to the Florida Education Association, no schools or classrooms were closed in Alachua County), reduced the number of COVID-19 cases in students or staff, or had any effect on the strain on our healthcare system. If mask mandates are “absolutely critical” in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, that should show up in the data–but it doesn’t.

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