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What Type of Mask Should Educators Wear?

(Image credit: Pixabay)

We’ve reached the point in the pandemic where it’s time to up our mask game. 

That’s what many experts are saying, including Dr. Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and chair of The Lancet’s Covid-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe Schools, and Safe Travel. 

While it made sense at the start of the pandemic to prioritize any type of mask wearing, now Allen urges educators, and other essential workers, to put more thought into mask quality. 

“We’re past the point where any mask will do,” he says. 

A good cloth mask might get to 60 or 70 percent protection while a high-quality surgical mask can range from 70 to 80 percent protection, Allen says. However, he advocates for everyone to wear a mask that filters 95 percent of airborne particles, and to make sure it is properly sealed against your face. 

First choice: N95

This mask is one we’ve all heard of for good reason. If worn correctly these masks will block 95 percent of airborne particles. But since these are still hard to come by and can be expensive due to the limited supply and intense demand, Allen suggests some alternatives that can be nearly as good. 

Second choice: KF94  

Made in South Korea, these high-quality, certified masks block 94 percent of airborne particles. “It’s very comfortable and it’s what I’ve been wearing,” Allen says. 

Third Choice: K95* 

In theory these masks made in China are the equivalent of N95s but it’s not quite that simple. “Here, you need to be very cautious because there have been counterfeit KN95s,” Allen says. “So if you're going to use a KN95 you need to do your homework.” He advises checking FDA and CDC websites to be sure the mask is what it claims to be and has a real NIOSH certificate.  

I Can’t Find These Masks. What Can I Do Today?  

“If a teacher wants better protection right now you can double mask,” Allen says. “I like the strategy because it's using materials that most people can access and are very cheap and affordable. So you wear a surgical mask, which has good filtration, and then a cloth mask on top that helps improve the seal, and that can get you over 90 percent.” 

How Should I Put The Mask On?  

Even the highest-quality filtration won’t do anything if you don’t wear the mask right and your breath escapes through the top and sides. 

“The mask needs to go over the bridge of your nose, down around your chin and be flush against your cheeks,” Allen writes in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post

“Americans should become familiar with ways to test a mask’s fit. Every time you put on a mask, do a ‘user seal check.’ Put your hands over the mask to block the air moving through it, and exhale gently. You shouldn’t feel air coming out the side or up toward your eyes. Then, test to make sure it stays in place by moving your head side to side and all around. Read passages of text, like the ‘Rainbow Passage’ that’s commonly used for respirator fit testing, and see whether the mask slides around too much when you talk.”

Are Face Shields Necessary?  

Allen says that face shields can be helpful as an add-on to a mask in a healthcare setting as they provide eye cover but that they are not necessary for educators. 

“This virus spreads through some combination of these large ballistic droplets that masks catch and these smaller aerosols that will float through the air beyond six feet,” Allen says. “The mask is the most important thing, and certainly a face shield should not be worn in place of a mask. Could it provide some extra protection? It can from those direct ballistic droplets, but I think in most settings, a school included, that's not necessary.” 

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator who writes about education, health, science, food, and travel. He has taught journalism at Quinnipiac University, Mercy College, and Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program.