4 tips to help kids wear masks safely at school

I’m a volunteer safety monitor during lunch and free time a.k.a. recess at a school serving grades 1 – 8. Aside from keeping the usual eye on the kids, during COVID-19, this job also emphasizes maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings properly.

With a few weeks of the school year under my belt, here are my top tips for parents who hope to help their kids keep their masks in place while they play.

Disposable surgical maskMy top four playground observations regarding children and masks:

  1. Fit matters
  2. Fabric matters
  3. Washing matters for re-usable fabric masks
  4. Instruct kids on how to sneeze before they need to know

Fit matters

There are two major points about fit that must be considered when selecting a mask.

First, what is the shape of the face you’re trying to cover?

Angelrox Comfort Mask on wire frame to show behind the head style strapsMasks slip down readily on faces with flatter noses. Adjustable ear– or around-the-head- bands may matter most to fight this tendency to succumb to gravity.

Beaky noses like mine that project further generally require a flexible metal nose-piece or wire to maintain a snug fit. I have also found that my protuberant nose works best with masks with the tallest possible fabric peak at the upper edge of the mask itself. More nose requires more material, I guess.

Surgical style masks cut with a straight line across the top can feel like they’re stabbing me in the outer corners of my eyes.

smaller blue mask layered over larger orange maskIn addition to the shape of the mask, size matters! Small children wearing one-size-fits-all adult masks either re-adjust constantly or have their noses hanging out due to overall droop. For younger kids, really try to select a mask that is sized to fit correctly. They struggle when pressed to adjust fit on their own.

Older kids can be taught such tricks as twisting the ear-loops on the mask to shorten them or using headbands and/or barrettes to secure an over-sized mask to a child-sized face to a point further behind the ears. It’s important that every kid knows how to make these adjustments on his or her own throughout the day.

“Cut a slice from the leg of a pair of nylons or tights; use this stretchy tube of fabric on top of a loose fitting mask…”

One unattractive but very effective trick to make a loose mask fit snugly against the face is the pantyhose hack. Cut a slice from the leg of a pair of nylons or tights; use this stretchy tube of fabric on top of a loose fitting mask made of tightly woven, virus-blocking material. You will look like a bank robber from a 1970’s film, but your mask will conform to your nose and mouth, protecting those around you from your exhalations.

I’m modeling a slice from the wider top “panty” portion of a pair of hose. For a smaller child’s face, cut a segment from the leg of the tights instead. My fingers indicate the corners of my mouth in the final photo.

Fabric matters

A mask that itches will be removed by an uncomfortable child. There have been some studies about efficacy of different materials for filtration, but it does appear that multiple layers of most types of fabric can do the job adequately for non-healthcare settings.

Little kids who are experiencing discomfort tend to act out. They wiggle, they itch, they take off garments we wish they wouldn’t… Whether your child’s mask is non-woven polypropylene, cotton sheeting, flannel, silk, or synthetic, it should be made of something that feels comfortable against the skin.

I have one mask made with two layers of silk with a third, tightly woven cotton layer encapsulated within; this meets filtration requirements while allowing only the smoothest, least irritating stuff to touch my skin. On a day when I’m experiencing a lot of pain from my chronic illness, that can make all the difference between tolerable and torture.

5 styles of cloth face mask next to surgical maskThough I haven’t tried all of these masks myself, here are links to companies I’ve patronized for other items selling masks small enough for children made from organic cotton with latex free elastics, silk, quilted linen, merino wool, a sturdy cotton blend cut with room to open the mouth wide, and breathable modern synthetics.

Washing routine matters

I’ve told this story before, but one first grader on the playground I patrol seems to have some sensory issues. If his mask “smells funny,” he suddenly struggles to keep it over his nose. He will require almost constant reminders because it’s almost impossibly unpleasant for him to wear smelly material on his face. Most of the time, this child wears his mask well, even seeming to forget it’s there like most of the little ones do.

The CDC gives advice on how to wash a reusable fabric mask, but not how often. I choose to follow the common sense suggestion for swapping a worn mask for a clean one after every eight hours or so of wear. Another popular rule of thumb is to treat your mask like your underwear and replace/wash it accordingly.

It’s also important to immediately change a wet or heavily soiled mask; wet fabric can not be relied upon to block germs as well as dry fabric.

Every kid should have a spare mask with him at school, or know where the school keeps back-ups for student use.

Since my skin is prone to over-reaction, I often line my mask with another layer of cotton/linen fabric that I cut to size from an old dinner napkin. This allows me to keep something clean against my face at all times and wear the same mask two or three days in a row for my approximately two hour work shifts. As a bonus, these fresh, dry fabric squares also work about as well as disposable paper tissues for helping ease the problem of fogging eyeglass lenses. I like using a re-usable there, plus I end up eating* less shredded paper from the tissue inevitably disintegrating inside my mask.

Keep any sensitivities your child might have in mind as you wash masks. Consider using a “free & clear” or otherwise unscented detergent for all face coverings. If you change laundry products, check in with family members in case anyone reacts to new chemicals or fragrances literally under their noses.

Almost all of the detergent in my home is designed specifically for sensitive skin, but I do keep one laundry product with enzymes on hand for heavily soiled items. I’d used that on a load of cleaning towels, and the masks I washed in the following load ended up slightly scented as a result, just due to lingering detergent residue. I had to re-wash those masks to make them wearable against my sensitive schnoz.

Gallon of Sensi-Clean liquid detergent next to small packetPersonally, I use Atsko’s Sensi Clean detergent for most of my household laundry because it is fragrance free and designed to leave less residue behind to irritate those of us with eczema. I buy Country Save detergent in individual-wash sized packets and always carry some when I travel overnight with my sensitive skinned kid. My family also does well (i.e., doesn’t experience skin rashes) using Charlie’s Soap while visiting relatives in an area with softer water. Any of these brands would be a safe choice for washing reusable fabric facial coverings.

Teach kids on how to sneeze while masked

Like most people, I didn’t think ahead to the question of what to do when I feel a sneeze coming on whilst masked. I was out on a walk, face covered, during allergy season. Luckily, my first masked sneeze occurred with no other people within several blocks!

Because the coast was clear, I opted to remove my mask and sneeze into a tissue I had in my pocket on that occasion.

Large box of Kleenex disposable tissuesBest practice for sneezing while masked is to allow the mask to contain the sneeze, even though soiling a thing touching your face can feel really, REALLY gross. The mask is there to catch your germs and prevent them from migrating to those around you. Teach kids to let the mask do its job.

However, most masks on most of our faces are less than perfectly fitted, and a sneeze can come out with a lot of force. Kids need to be told that it is okay to soil a mask with a sneeze, and also to move away from others before the sneeze happens if possible. A covered, distant sneeze is better than doing it facing a group of friends.

Again: Every kid should have a spare mask with her at school, or know where the school keeps back-ups for student use. No child should spend more than a few minutes in a snot-encrusted face covering.

If you provide the fresh back-up mask in a Ziploc bag or a mini stuff sack or packing cube, make sure your little scholar also understands that this receptacle is also the best way to carry home the used, snotty mask. This will contain germs better and save you a slimy surprise when checking pockets on laundry day. Clean if washable or replace the soiled bag when you or your child re-stocks the school bag with a fresh, spare mask.

It’s easy for parents to forget how kids play, and how messy a game can get. We had some little ones improvise dirt “grenades” on the playground last week, and it turns out to be very hard to breathe through a dirt-encrusted face covering. One of the boys involved had a spare mask in his backpack, but the other became very worried about using a disposable replacement from the school for his soiled mask.

“It’s washable,” he cried out. “I can keep wearing it!”

This little boy was really worried that our suggestion that he wear a school mask for the afternoon meant that we didn’t understand the importance—and longevity—of the one he’d brought from home.

I suspect it is a bit like going home in a pair of ratty sweatpants from the lost and found bin after an “accident.” That can be really embarrassing for a kid. Sending a child with his own back-up, spare mask can avoid this kind of pain.

*Because I haven’t taken the time to hem my home-made, cut rectangles of cotton/linen fabric that were formerly a dinner napkin, I still sometimes end up eating threads from the fraying edges of this cloth.

Shortcuts might get you where you were going, but they may also feed you wood pulp or cotton/linen fibers…

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