School leaders say mask requirement has played a big part in drop in COVID-19 cases

School leaders said COVID-19 cases are trending downward, and safety protocols, like requiring masks, played a big part in the drop in cases.

Orange County school board leaders said COVID-19 cases appear to be getting back under control with the mask mandate in place.

Meanwhile, a state official said new data about COVID-19 in schools proves masks work in protecting kids.

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“Masks work,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. “The kids are safer wearing masks in school during this pandemic.”

For weeks, Fried said she has fought to get data about COVID-19 in schools that she said the governor’s office has been hiding.

“Governor DeSantis has hidden behind his lack of transparency of COVID-19 data, refusing to release daily numbers, but also refusing to provide comprehensive data on how COVID is affecting our schools,” she said.

Fried and her team compiled public data from dozens of Florida school districts.

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“We looked at the numbers several different ways and in every single case, kids were better off in school districts that require masks than school districts that did not,” she said.

According to Fried, key findings within the data include:

  • Three times lower student COVID-19 cases per capita in school districts starting the school year with mask requirements (Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade) than in school districts without mask requirements.
  • School districts with mask requirements enacted at any time had just half the student COVID-19 cases as school districts without mask requirements.
  • Four times higher student COVID-19 peak cases per capita in school districts without mask requirements than school districts requiring masks.
  • Seven times higher student COVID-19 peak cases per capita in the smallest school districts, without mask requirements, than in the largest school districts, where masks were required.
  • 600 times higher peak cases per capita in mask-less Highlands County (12 cases per capita) than in masked Miami-Dade and Broward Counties (0.02 cases per capita).
  • 0.69 peak cases per capita in school districts requiring masks; 0.98 peak cases per capita in school districts with mask parental opt-outs; 2.90 peak cases per capita in school districts with no mask requirements.
  • Five largest school districts had an average of 0.48 peak cases per capita, while five smallest school districts had 3.51 peak cases per capita.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office released the following statement in regards to Fried’s data:

“Commissioner Fried is again pandering to conspiracy theorists who believe, without evidence, that “Florida is hiding its COVID-19 data.” In fact, all COVID-19 case data is collected and reported by the Florida Department of Health, which is not Fried’s agency. It is interesting that Fried’s “3.5 times fewer cases” claim was the same logically flawed conclusion as the recent CDC study from Arizona; the school dashboard numbers aren’t verified. I understand she claims this is “hidden” Florida data. That is not accurate; it is a misrepresentation of certain Florida data that she cherry picked to reach the same conclusion as the debunked AZ study.

“Fried’s communications staffer at FDACS, Franco Ripple, claims that the “3.5 times” figure is based on data from three school districts in Florida. This paints an inaccurate picture for many reasons -- first of all, Florida has 67 school districts. COVID-19 cases statewide have declined more than 95% since school started. The magnitude of decline in COVID-19 infection rate among children 5-17 has been the same in districts with and without mask mandates.

“Fried is not an epidemiologist or scientist, nor does her department have any responsibility or special access to COVID-19 data. Conducting research on infectious diseases is not the competence of the agriculture commissioner or FDACS. It is surprising if any member of the press would take her at her word as though she is an infectious disease expert.

“There are several serious issues that any epidemiologist would have been able to point out to Commissioner Fried if she had asked:

  • “In the COVID school dashboard data, there is no way of verifying whether an infection was picked up in school or outside of school.
  • “There is no adjustment for vaccination rates of different counties.
  • “There is no adjustment for previous infection rates in different counties. Counties with higher infection rates last year, like Miami Dade and Broward, would be expected to have more immunity in the population this year, thus lowering transmission.
  • “There is no adjustment for community infection rates.
  • “Fried differentiates “mask mandates with parental op-outs” from “no mask policy.” These are the same thing; it would make more sense to compare “mask optional” to “mask mandate” schools.
  • “Fried calculates the percentage of students infected per district in each category, then averaged the percentages, which disproportionately weights districts with small populations.

“These are very basic errors that render the result worthless.

“DOH data on pediatric case rates in different counties shows no significant difference between forced masking and mask optional districts on pediatric cases across counties:

“NEW PEDIATRIC CASES:

  • “New COVID-19 cases for children ages 5-17 – the vast majority of the school-aged population – have decreased 79% in the month of September, in the 54 Florida counties where school districts have no masking policy or are following state law by honoring the parental opt-out rule.
  • “For comparison, COVID-19 cases for children 5-17 in the in the 13 districts that imposed forced-masking in schools have decreased 77%, on average.

“POSITIVITY RATES:

  • “The 54 districts with opt-outs or no mask policy have seen an average decrease of 65% in positivity from week ending Aug. 19 (when school started) to the week ending Sep. 30.
  • “The 13 districts that broke the law to impose forced-masking have seen an average decrease of 67%.”

At a meeting on Thursday, Orange County Public School leaders said they have seen a drastic drop in COVID-19 cases.

A doctor on the OCPS medical advisory committee said the evidence is indisputable.

“Masks work and masks are an integral and important part of the layering protection that you can provide children in schools,” Dr. Michael Muszynski said.

The mask mandate for Orange County schools is set to expire at the end of the month. Most members of the medical advisory committee called for the policy to stay until cases get to safer levels.

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Katlyn Brieskorn, WFTV.com

Katlyn Brieskorn is a Digital Assignment Editor at WFTV. She joined Channel 9 in July 2019.