Can’t get an N95 for kids? How to Mask Your Kids for Ontario’s Return to School

With the personal schooling resumes Ontario on Monday, shield children from COVID infection in the classroom is again at the forefront of many parents.

While the children were at home, the highly contagious, more vaccine-resistant Omicron variant spread incredibly much throughout the province and the world. That changed much of what we thought we knew about COVID.

Still, many of the proven methods of staying safe from the virus still hold up, such as getting vaccinated, social distancing and masking, experts say.

But what masks should children wear now? Where can parents buy them? How should masks be cared for and worn?

The Star contacted pediatricians for advice.

Which masks should I buy?

Not all masks offer the highest level of protection, but every mask is better than none – or, crucially, one that is too large for your child’s face, experts say.

In an ideal world, all children would come to school wearing high quality masks, such as N95, KN95, KF94 or FN95 respirators. These all offer about the same high level of filtration, but can be more expensive in child sizes and are routinely sold out.

Parents should not feel guilty if they can not afford or locate such masks, said Dr. Anne Wormsbecker, a pediatrician at Unity Health Toronto. Instead, they should focus on making sure they use the best option for them.

“I really want to emphasize to families getting masks that fit your child and that they will wear,” she said. “It means a mask that fits snugly around the face, no large spaces.”

Wormsbecker said that even a mask that is less effective on paper than an N95 – such as a surgical mask – may be preferable to a respirator that is too large for a small child’s face.

Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician in Toronto and director of Kidcrew Medical Clinic, agreed.

“You could have the most expensive mask, but if it does not fit properly, it is useless,” she said. “It is much more important to have a well-fitting mask that touches all areas of the face.”

If you can not find a high-quality respirator in the right size, double masking is a convenient way to cope, the pediatricians said. Kulik suggested a combination of surgical masks and fabric masks, with the more effective surgical mask being put on first.

How do I get a mask to fit well?

There are a few steps parents and older children can take to secure the masks better, the pediatricians said. But it all starts with getting a suitably sized mask.

“You absolutely have to have a child size (mask) for a child, because otherwise the fit will not be there,” Kulik said. “An adult mask might suit me well, but it’s completely useless to my child.”

While N95 respirators may not come in small child sizes, Kulik, KN95 and other similar masks said do, some sizes for children as young as two years old.

To ensure a better fit if a mask is loose, Wormsbecker and Kulik both suggested adjusting the ear straps by tying a knot.

Kulik also advised parents to buy attachable plastic ear straps, sometimes called “mask locks” or “ear locks” online. They can be reused, and “the child can move them close to or further away from the mask to make it tighter or looser,” she said.

Where should I buy masks online?

The internet is huge and it can be hard to know which sites can provide what you really need. Kulik advised people to avoid general trading sites, such as Amazon, when masking shopping and choosing instead canadastrongmasks.ca or dent-xcanada.com, both of which wear high-quality respirators or surgical masks in child and adult sizes.

Can I reuse masks?

Surgical masks are disposable and should be discarded if they get wet from condensation or otherwise soiled, the pediatricians said.

“Especially in the winter, if we wear masks outdoors, there is a lot of condensation and the masks get wet,” Wormsbecker said. “When a mask is wet or visibly dirty, it no longer works”

Kulik said that KN95 and similar respirators can be reused if they are not wet or dirty – but ideally only once. She recommends using used masks for two to three days before using them a second time.

Because these types of masks do not come in direct contact with the mouth, as surgical masks or fabric masks do, they are both more comfortable to wear and less likely to get dirty, Kulik said, making them easier to reuse.

If all you have is a fabric mask, it should be washed on a hot cycle and dried between uses, she said. Even if you do not have to throw them out if they get wet or dirty, you should still put a fresh one on once it has happened.

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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