Health, education officials credit masks for low COVID spread in schools

By: - November 25, 2020 8:00 am

Schools will be required to offer 100% in-person classes to students who want them under legislation approved Jan. 28, 2021. (Photo by Getty Images)

During a statewide address last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds expanded face mask requirements across the state in light of a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

But she excluded one of the state’s most populated indoor facilities: School buildings.

Reynolds defended the exclusion the next day, saying there haven’t been reported “super spreader” events at schools, unlike weddings or baby showers.

But the lack of large outbreaks is because schools are locally choosing to require face masks, along with other mitigation strategies, according to school district officials and health experts.

At Des Moines schools, Diane Gladson, health services supervisor, said she believes the district’s hybrid model and mask requirements have kept infections at bay. Through contact tracing with the Polk County Health Department, Gladson said they learned the majority of positive cases stemmed from household spread.

“We’ve had really good mask compliance,” Gladson said. “We aren’t identifying that many close contact in school settings.”

More Iowa school districts are using face masks

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says using face masks in schools can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in classrooms where 6 feet of distance between students can’t be maintained.

About 9% of Iowa school districts don’t require students to wear masks — a dramatic drop from early October when 40% of districts had no requirements, according to a report from the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), the statewide teacher’s union.

Sara Ann Willette, a data scientist who analyzes the state’s virus data for her site, Iowa COVID-19 Tracker, said schools without mask mandates have reported higher positive case numbers than those with mandates.

Those that do have outbreaks typically adopt masks later and report fewer cases, she said.

“They have one positive here, one positive there, instead of a dozen positive among students and staff,” Willette said.

Especially among older kids in high schools, the virus still spreads between students and staff, said Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

“Any suggestion that it’s not spreading in schools is because schools are requiring masks,” Perencevich said. “But then telling people not to wear masks is borderline gaslighting.”

Despite more districts requiring masks, Iowa’s community spread is still forcing thousands of students and staff to quarantine due to exposure and sicknesses.

Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush speaks about COVID-19 during a Zoom call on Nov. 12, 2020. (Screenshot of Zoom call)

In Cedar Rapids, Superintendent Noreen Bush said the school district always required face masks and taught students the importance of social distancing and using hand sanitizer.

But before the distinct temporarily moved online, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, there were 356 staff absences due to COVID-19.

“We are hanging by a thread,” Bush said. “This is not a school issue. This is a community issue.”

In the Waukee school district, contact tracing with Dallas County Public Health showed all but two or three cases stemmed from outside the school, said spokesperson Amy Varcoe. There are currently 73 students and staff who have tested positive in the district.

“Controlling the community spread is the challenge, outside of school behaviors are driving the cases, not our students and staff being physically in the buildings,” Varcoe said.

Iowa State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati speaks at a news conference Sept. 29, 2020, at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state’s epidemiologist, said in September that a study of four Sioux County school districts showed the efficacy of face masks. Three school districts, which didn’t require face masks, had 30% to 130% higher rates of COVID-19 than the district with the mandate.

Mike Beranek, president of ISEA, said he wants Reynolds to require masks across the board.

Elected school boards currently decide if masks should be required, but they each hold “different philosophies” on masks, he said.

He also wants Reynolds to eliminate the online waiver requirement and allow school districts to decide if they want to hold most classes online. Switching back and forth and asking for permission is burdensome for staff and for students.

“Our schools are full of students and educators,” Beranek said. “There’s not a line that stops at the school door, ‘coronavirus no entry.’”

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