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Dolphin Bay Elementary School student Dael Fernandez gets an assist with his mask from his mom Cynthia Fernandez, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Miramar, Fla. Masks are still required in public schools in Broward, Palm Beach and six other Florida counties.
Dolphin Bay Elementary School student Dael Fernandez gets an assist with his mask from his mom Cynthia Fernandez, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Miramar, Fla. Masks are still required in public schools in Broward, Palm Beach and six other Florida counties. (Joe Cavaretta, South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Some U.S. schools are starting to lift mask mandates as the latest COVID-19 wave fades, and case trends suggest others may soon follow.

At least half a dozen school districts across the country have recently lifted their mandates, the first such swing away from the face coverings, according to Burbio, which tracks the developments and runs a dashboard on schools. They include Troup County in Georgia, Rogers Public Schools in Arkansas and Northside ISD in Texas, Burbio reported.

As of Oct. 15, 78% of the 500 largest districts still required masks, according to Burbio data. Many of the schools that made a change still recommend the coverings even though they’re now optional.

The shift appeared to reflect in part the waning of the U.S. delta wave, which hit just as schools were preparing to return from summer break. A month ago, every state was in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worst COVID-19 community-transmission category, “high,” meaning they were all recording at least 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents or had a case positivity rate of 10% or more.

Now, five states — California, Louisiana, Florida, Connecticut and Hawaii — have dropped to the “substantial” level, the second worst of the four categories. Many school districts — including the nation’s fourth largest, Florida’s Miami-Dade — have linked their policies to the CDC’s tiered system.

Though Florida as a whole has improved, Miami-Dade County remains “high,” with a seven-day case rate of just over 100 per 100,000 residents. That rate is down 23% in the past week.

Conditions vary across the country, but leading indicators suggest the broad decline in virus transmission is likely to continue in the near term. The effective reproduction number or Rt — a measure of new infections from one newly infected person — is below one in 46 states and the nation’s capital, which typically means cases should fall.

At the local level, some areas look even better. The CDC has 171 counties, or 5.3%, in its “moderate” or “low” transmission categories. At those levels, the agency has more relaxed guidelines for schools, including more liberal practices for school sports, which have sometimes been associated with outbreaks.

Despite the improvements, there’s significant reason for uncertainty heading into North America’s traditional winter virus season.

The CDC still recommends facial coverings for school kids, and many districts will probably hold onto the practice at least until young children are eligible for vaccines. But some districts are clearly moving faster.

The seven-day moving average of new U.S. cases was 80,313 as of Oct. 15, down 24% from two weeks earlier, CDC data show.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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