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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday offered more evidence that school masks requirements can help keep children healthy and in classrooms, showing lower spikes in pediatric covid cases and fewer school closures in places that require them.

In an analysis of 520 U.S. counties, the CDC found that pediatric cases rose more sharply in places without school mask requirements. And in a separate report that looked at Arizona's two largest counties, the agency found that schools without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to be forced to close than schools with them.

Though polls show a majority of parents support mask requirements - and despite recommendations from pediatricians and the CDC - schools remain bitterly divided over whether to implement them. Opponents of mask mandates say parents should get to decide whether their children wear them.

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The pandemic has already taken a toll on the new school year. In a third report, the CDC said more than 900,000 students in 44 states had been affected by closures since the start of school. Many schools are contending with challenges on multiple fronts, including outbreaks that force staff to quarantine, and staff shortages that make it difficult to find replacements.

The CDC looked at pediatric case data for about 17 percent of U.S. counties and found that nearly all saw a spike in pediatric cases after schools reopened. But those without mask requirements saw larger increases - about 18 cases per 100,000 - than those with them.

Because the data was limited to so few counties, and because it reflected all pediatric cases - and not just those of school-aged children - the agency said “the results may not be generalizable.” Still, the agency said, “School mask requirements, along with other prevention strategies, including COVID-19 vaccination, are critical to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

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