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Should Kids Wear N95 or KN95 Masks to School? Here's What Experts Say.

kids in school with masks on

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Key Takeaways

  • The Omicron variant is highly contagious and cloth masks aren't enough to prevent transmission in a classroom setting.
  • N95 and KN95 masks best protect adults against Omicron, but they are not considered a safe option for kids.
  • Kids should wear a comfortable three-layer surgical mask with a well-fitting cloth mask layered over it.

Keeping stock of the supplies your family needs has been a major challenge throughout the pandemic. With recommendations changing at a dizzying speed, it's been hard to keep up with what the safest mask options for adults and kids are. Given the high transmission rate of the Omicron variant, experts now recommend wearing N95 or KN95 masks, which have better filters and a tight seal that makes them more effective. But what about kids, do they need N95 or KN95 masks too?

When it comes to masks, what's best for adults isn't always safe for kids. Because there is still a lot we don't know about how safe N95 and KN95 masks are for kids, it's best to leave those masks for the adults.

Brian Levine, MD, MS, FACOG

"If the mask does not fit the child well and is unable to form a tight seal on their face, then it's not going to be effective."

— Brian Levine, MD, MS, FACOG

UPDATE: September 1, 2022

As your child begins the 2022-2023 school year, you may be wondering if they should be wearing a mask in school. At this point, most school districts have dropped mask mandates. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still provides guidelines for masking. If your community is at a high level of COVID-19 spread, universal mask-wearing is recommended both in school and when out and about. No matter the level of community spread, the CDC says anyone who chooses to wear a mask should be supported in their decision to do so. You can access the CDC's full guidelines for the 2022-23 school year on its website.

Are N95 or KN95 Masks Safe for Kids?

While N95 masks are ideal for adults, the FDA does not recommend them for children. The data on N95 use in children is inconsistent thus far. One study found that children's breathing was not adversely affected during mild exercise while wearing an N95 mask, but another study found that children's breathing rates were higher with the mask on. There have not been any clinical studies on KN95 mask in children, so we really don't know if they are safe.

N95 masks are also generally difficult for kids to tolerate. "Most N95 masks have a rigid border that creates significant pressure against the face to form a proper seal," says Leah Alexander, MD, a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best. "An adjustment period is often necessary to become accustomed to talking while wearing one and ear pain and skin irritation were common complaints from children."

What Kind of Mask Should Kids Wear?

It is important to consider what makes N95 and KN95 masks effective, and try to replicate those qualities with the masks you choose for your kids. What really makes the difference in reducing Omicron's spread is a mask made from a material that provides a sufficient barrier and as tight of a seal as possible. Ensuring that there are no gaps on the top, bottom, or sides of the mask prevents droplets from getting out into the air where others can come in contact with them and potentially contract COVID-19.

Experts recommend layering a well-fitting cloth mask over a three-layer surgical mask. A proper fit prevents droplets from exiting out gaps in the mask, which, along with sufficient layering, is most important in reducing transmission. "A mask that doesn't fit properly is the worst mask to wear," says Brian Levine, MD, MS, FACOG, a Verywell Review Board Member. "If the mask does not fit the child well and is unable to form a tight seal on their face, then it's not going to be effective."

The Best Option for Kids

Instead of wearing an N95 or KN95 mask, the best thing for kids to do is wear a three-layer surgical mask with a well-fitting cloth mask layered over it.

Surgical masks provide a better barrier against droplets than a cloth mask does, but they are not designed to fit snugly. Putting a cloth mask on top allows you to get a snug fit so that droplets cannot get out through gaps in the mask. Together, these two masks create a mask that offers similar protection to that of an N95 or KN95 mask.

Masks also need to be comfortable enough so that your child won't tug at them throughout the day. You'll want to make sure the mask isn't too tight or too loose. An ill-fitting mask needs adjusting more frequently, increasing the likelihood of your child touching their face, which should be avoided to protect them from the virus. "If children adjust or remove their mask frequently, it defeats the purpose of wearing a mask," emphasizes Dr. Alexander.

How to Ensure Masks Fits Properly

Proper fit is essential to a mask's effectiveness. A correctly fitting mask should cover both the nose and mouth. "It should be worn flush against the face with minimal gaps around the mask borders," says Dr. Alexander.

Have your child try out their mask before wearing it to school to test out the fit. "When physicians and healthcare professionals are testing to see if a mask fits well, they try normal breathing, deep breathing, moving their head from side to side and up and down, talking, and bending over," says Dr. Levine. "A child should be able to do all these things comfortably with the mask on. Then they are more likely to be able to wear the mask without repeat touching or readjusting."

What This Means For You

With Omicron even more transmissible than previous forms of COVID-19, a cloth mask won't provide enough protection. Children should wear a three-layer surgical mask with a well-fitting cloth mask layered over it. The fit is correct if there are no gaps on the top, bottom, or sides. A well-fitting mask provides protection close to what an adult gets from an N95 or KN95 mask.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Are cloth masks enough to protect against omicron?.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. N95 respirators, surgical masks, face masks, and barrier face coverings.

  3. Center on Disease Control and Prevention. Improve how your mask protects you.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Operational Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs to Support Safe In-Person Learning

  5. Eberhart M, Orthaber S, Kerbl R. The impact of face masks on children—A mini review. Acta Paediatr. Published online February 21, 2021:10.1111/apa.15784. doi:10.1111/apa.15784

  6. Lubrano R, Bloise S, Marcellino A, et al. Effects of n95 mask use on pulmonary function in children. J Pediatr. 2021;237:143-147. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2021.05.050.

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Face masks for children during COVID-19.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR Family and Scary Mommy, among others.