Here are the mask-wearing best practices you need to know, from best types of masks, to how often they need to be washed.
Editor’s note: This article was updated from an earlier version posted on September 9, 2020.
While many of us were hoping for a return to normalcy this school year, COVID-19 is still a risk for students, especially those who are unable to be vaccinated.
If your children are heading back to the classroom, it’s important to talk to them about how to properly wear a mask while at school—even if you’ve had the conversation before. To get some insight on mask-wearing best practices for kids, we spoke with Dr. Salwa Sulieman, pediatric infectious disease specialist, and Dr. Christopher Wilbur, pediatric specialist.
The Importance of Masks
Unfortunately, the Delta variant of COVID-19 has been on the rise. “Studies have shown that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as the original virus,” says Dr. Sulieman. That is why mask-wearing is still one of the best ways we can protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. “Masks provide another layer of protection for us and our children. Even if you are a vaccinated adult, you should wear a mask whenever you’re around people from outside your household,” she says.
Masks work best when everyone is wearing them to protect those around them. Explaining this to children might seem challenging, but there is evidence that children as young as age two can understand the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing when they’re told it’s to help protect those around them. “We’ve seen over the past year and a half that mask-wearing is very effective for kids,” says Dr. Wilbur. “Last year, the number of pediatric respiratory infections decreased because children were social distancing and masking; however, when mask restrictions were relaxed this spring, we once again saw a quick increase in respiratory illnesses in children.”
Types of Masks for Children
In general, kids can wear the same type of masks as adults wear: cloth, medical-grade or disposable. The key to effective mask-wearing is making sure it’s easy for your child to wear it properly without a lot of adjusting.
The masks that provide the most protection are the ones that cover both their mouth and nose and fit their face so they aren’t messing with it during the day. —Dr. Sulieman
If you’re buying or making a reusable mask, you should make sure that a double or triple layer of cotton is used.
Try out a few different masks before your child starts the school year to make sure you find one that is comfortable for them to wear all day. There are a lot of different styles of masks—some tie behind the head and others loop behind the ear. You may also choose one with a bendable nose piece that may make it easier to keep on during the day.
As a parent, you should think about ways to make mask-wearing fun for your child. Try making or buying masks with a fun fabric that features their favorite cartoon character or superhero. Make the mask a fun new accessory to wear to school, just like a new pair of sneakers or a backpack. This way kids can be excited to show their masks off to friends at school.
Parents and teachers often stress the importance of proper handwashing with children and should do the same for mask hygiene. Dr. Wilbur says, “Keep in mind that children should try to wash their hands before and after touching their mask.” Proper handwashing is always best, but hand sanitizer made with 60% alcohol will also work when soap and water are not available.
If your child is wearing cloth masks, be sure to wash them frequently. “Ideally, children should have a clean mask for every day of the school week, plus a clean backup mask with them at all times,” Dr. Sulieman says. If your child’s mask becomes wet or soiled at any time, they should switch to a new mask immediately.
Dealing with Common Issues
It may be a concern that your child will refuse to wear a mask when they go back to school. If it seems like they’re wary of masks because they’re afraid to wear one, the most important thing to do is to normalize them. “Show that everyone is wearing a mask to protect those around them. And talk about how wearing a mask is important for things to get back to normal,” says Dr. Sulieman.
“I recently heard this analogy to explain why mask-wearing can still protect us: When it’s raining, we can use an umbrella to stay dry. But when it’s pouring, we might need an umbrella and a rain jacket to stay dry,” says Dr. Sulieman. “In terms of the virus, we want as much protection as possible, which means taking all the safety precautions we have been, in addition to getting vaccinated when you’re able.”
In the United States, about 70% of adults are vaccinated, but only 40% of those ages 12 to 18 have received the vaccine. “Teenagers are in a confined space in school, so they are susceptible to any airborne transmissible virus like COVID-19. It’s important to continue encouraging your older children to get vaccinated in addition to wearing masks in school,” says Dr. Wilbur.