IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

CDC school guidelines and universal masking: A shopping guide

New guidance from the CDC says kids can maintain a distance of 3 feet rather than 6 while following prevention measures, including universal masking.
The CDC updated school guidelines, suggesting students stay 3 feet apart and take part in universal masking. See the best face masks for kids to stay safe.
The CDC updated school guidelines, suggesting students stay 3 feet apart and practice universal masking. Getty Images

Select is editorially independent. Our editors selected these deals and items because we think you will enjoy them at these prices. If you purchase something through our links, we may earn a commission. Pricing and availability are accurate as of publish time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just updated its K-12 school guidance to recommend that, alongside universal masking in schools, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings. Previous guidance advised at least 6 feet of physical distance between students in schools — the same distance recommended in the CDC’s general Covid-19 guidelines.

Like all things we introduce to kids, doing it slowly, comfortably and making it fun all help with compliance

Danette Swanson Glassy, MD

The CDC first released its K-12 guidance in February to help facilitate the opening of schools across the country, and keep schools open for in-person instruction. The updated guidance about physical distancing in schools reflects results of three studies published in the CDC’s weekly roundup of public health news, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The studies “build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken,” according to the CDC. The World Health Organization has historically recommended people keep a distance of at least 1 meter between each other, equivalent to about 3 feet.

“Face coverings are the most effective preventative measure in early childcare and education settings,” said Danette Swanson Glassy, MD, a primary care pediatrician. “Physical distancing keeps kids, their friends and teachers safe — especially when children are unmasked while eating and sleeping.”

Given this new guidance and with schools reopening for in-person learning across the country, we consulted pediatricians about the best masks for kids, and how to help them adjust to wearing them for extended periods of time.

What’s new in the CDC’s latest guidelines for schools?

The CDC states that its new recommendations “are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask wearing.” But there are some differences for elementary, middle and high schools, depending on the level of community transmission.

  • In elementary schools, all students should remain at least 3 feet apart in classrooms where mask use is universal, whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high.
  • In middle and high schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart in classrooms where mask use is universal and in communities where transmission is low, moderate, or substantial.
  • Middle school students and high school students should be at least 6 feet apart in communities where transmission is high, if cohorting is not possible. The CDC based this on different Covid-19 transmission dynamics in older students — they’re more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus and spread it than younger children.

Other situations during which 6 feet of distance should supersede the new 3-foot guidance:

  • Between adults in the school building and between adults and students
  • In common areas, such as school lobbies and auditoriums
  • When masks can’t be worn, such as when eating
  • During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band practice, sports or exercise
  • In community settings outside of the classroom

The CDC also updated its guidance for operating child care programs during the pandemic, stating that staff and children over the age of 2 should wear masks indoors and outdoors, except when eating or sleeping. The CDC uses 2 years old as the benchmark here because by that age, kids are mobile and understand basic rules, said Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and a professor at Stony Brook University.

What type of face mask should students wear?

The CDC recommends that everyone over 2 years old should wear a well-fitting mask that features two or more layers of fabric and an adjustable nose wire, as well as completely covers the mouth and nose — its guidance pretty much ends there, and doesn’t specify types of face masks. Reusable cloth masks, disposable masks and respirators like KN95s and N95s all fit this description, though. Double masking has been recommended by the CDC and medical experts, too. But Nachman said well-fitting reusable cloth masks with two or more layers of fabric provide enough protection for kids to wear alone at elementary, middle and high schools, as well as in child care facilities.

“When you look at the transmission rates in school buildings, they’re in fact quite low,” Nachman said. “So the fact that we have not recommended KN95 masks to date suggests that the masks parents are already using for their children are working appropriately.”

As for disposable kids masks, Nachman said they often don’t fit as well as reusable cloth masks.

Best face masks for kids

To help you find the right face mask, we’ve compiled top-rated face masks for kids that align with the new CDC guidelines.

Crayola Kids Face Mask Set

Crayola released these double-layered cloth masks in collaboration with SchoolMaskPack. They’re machine-washable and reusable, with adjustable ear straps to relieve ear tension. Packs come with a mesh laundry bag for safe washing and the brand claims each mask can be washed and reused up to 30 times. SchoolMaskPack also offers a liquid-repellent mask that is both breathable and can withstand rain and exercise.

Old Navy Triple-Layer Cloth Pleated Face Masks for Kids

These pleated cloth masks come in multiple spring-worthy prints and colors for a stylish and breathable kid’s option. The adjustable ear straps can easily customize the mask’s fit for small or larger faces, while the soft 3-ply cotton fabric adds an extra layer of comfort.

Athleta Girl Adjustable Made to Move Mask

If your child is always on the move, these exercise-friendly masks by athleisure brand Athleta is a lightweight option worth considering. Their Made to Move line features soft, elastic binding that reduces discomfort, relieves tension on the face and prevents hair from getting tangled with movement. Available in three colorways, the Athleta masks have two layers of fabric: a polyester and spandex blend outer layer and a breathable mesh internal layer.

Vistaprint Kids Face Masks

Kids are more likely to wear masks that feature characters they recognize, experts told us. These Vistaprint masks feature dozens of kid-friendly designs, logos and cartoon superheroes, including Batman and Wonder Woman, for a pop of personality. They also include a replaceable fiber filter for an added layer of protection and a total usage of 12 hours.

Gap Kids Contour Mask with Filter Pocket

These fun printed face masks by Gap feature breathable triple-layer cotton, adjustable elastic straps and a nose-bridge wire for a comfortable fit. They’re machine-washable and reusable, coming in more than 10 different colors and prints. If you’re looking for even more kid-friendly designs without the adjustable straps, these Gap knit-blend masks with jersey ear loops come with several cartoon character options.

Onzie Mindful Masks for Kids

Made for ages 5 to 10, these Onzie Mindful Masks are composed of multi-layer spandex fabric up-cycled from the brand’s activewear, making them breathable, stretchy and quick-drying. While machine-washing isn’t recommended, the brand suggests washing them by hand and hanging them to dry for reuse.

Corevival Kids Face Mask 2-Pack

These reusable masks feature a built-in nose flap that not only provides an extra protective shield but also prevents glasses from fogging up during the school day. They consist of a soft two-layer fabric, contoured design to fit your child’s face shape as well as adjustable ear loops for sizing. The Corevival masks are machine-washable — use cold water only.

Happy Masks Pro Series

Happy Masks’ Pro Series offers a range of sizes — with the small size fitting ages three to 10 — and includes a nanofiber membrane filter for additional filtration and withstands at least 50 washes by hand, according to the brand. It has adjustable ear straps and a nose wire to fit different face shapes, while its “parrot beak” design leaves enough room between the mask and the mouth and nose in order to breathe comfortably for long-term wear.

Should kids double mask?

Danette Swanson Glassy, MD, who is also a child advocate and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told us double masking is not recommended for children at child care and education facilities. Double masking is difficult for younger children because they have small faces and ears: Wearing multiple masks can be a burden to them. As for older children, she said there is no guidance or requirement to double mask in schools.

While medical experts don’t recommend kids wear two masks at once, Nachman tells parents to send kids to school with two reusable cloth masks: one on their face and one in their backpack, stored in a clean Ziploc bag. Since kids are mouth breathers, she explained their mask becomes wet throughout the day. And a wet mask is not an effective mask, Nachman said. Kids can wear one mask for the first half of the school day and put on their new one after they eat lunch.

Normalizing face masks for kids

Nachman said children learn from what the adults in their lives do — it’s crucial that a child sees their parents wearing masks so they copy that behavior. It also helps that kids see their friends and siblings wear masks.

Because every mask fits differently, Glassy noted that it may take trial and error to find the right mask for your child. She suggests buying a few face coverings from different brands to practice wearing at home. Because kids talk during the school day, and wear a mask for multiple hours, Glassy said to make sure you find a comfortable mask that doesn't slip down while kids speak. She also said to look for masks with fun graphics and colors, which will make kids more excited about wearing them. Additionally, Glassy said parents should involve kids in shopping for their masks. They’re more likely to be cooperative if they have a say in which mask they wear.

“Like all things we introduce to kids, doing it slowly, comfortably and making it fun all help with compliance,” she said.