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N95, KN95, or surgical: What masks should kids wear to school?

“Mask wearing is crucially important at this stage because for kids who are too young for the vaccine, it’s the only tool they have.”

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The first few days back to school after the holiday break is an already fraught time for children, but it’s especially frustrating due to the rampant spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Since this variant is three times as transmissible as Delta, masks are as important as ever, but parents are still struggling to decide what mask to give their children.

“Mask wearing is crucially important at this stage because for kids who are too young for the vaccine, it’s the only tool they have,” says Karl E. Minges Ph.D., Interim Dean of the School of Health Sciences at New Haven University. “There’s a precipitous increase in both the numbers of positive children with Covid and hospitalizations…. (and) type of mask makes more of a difference with omicron than other variants.”

“I don’t think there’s evidence to suggest that Omicron is more dangerous,” he clarified, “it’s just that more people are infected.”

His advice is in line with the recommendations on the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) official website:

"Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

What masks are best for kids going back to school?

While N95s are still your best bet for preventing the spread of infection, they are not recommended for children and, in fact, any brand claiming to sell N95s in child sizes is selling counterfeit (and therefore unsafe) masks. And since most experts agree that cloth masks are not enough, that leaves KN95 and 3-ply surgical masks.

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As for which to go with? Professor Minges thinks that fit should be the deciding factor.

“If students are amenable to it, it’s worth trying an N95 or a KN95, but they tend to be less comfortable,” he says. “You’d rather have your kid wearing the mask period than trying to shoot for the best mask.”

Comfort aside, it’s also important to make sure that an N95 or KN95 mask fits properly. 

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“The reason KN95s and N95s are so effective is their electrostatic ability to collect particles, but also that they provide an excellent seal: If you see the mask going indented around the nose when you breathe, that means you have a good seal.”

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Though N95s are not made for children, he did specify that duck-billed N95s, which come in “regular” and “small” sizes, can be effective for people with smaller faces.

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And for the community as a whole, Professor Minges had one last request:

“Everyone has an ‘unmask our kids’ yard sign,” he said, “can you take those down? Please?”