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CDC school guidelines and universal masking: A shopping guide

New guidance from the CDC recommends students and teachers wear masks indoors at school, regardless of vaccination status.
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 recommends universal indoor masking for K-12 schools.Getty Images

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just updated its K-12 school guidance to recommend that students, teachers, staff and visitors wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status as they return to in-person learning this fall. Previously, the CDC said fully vaccinated individuals did not need to wear masks indoors at school, but new research regarding Covid variants — specifically the Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain of Covid in the United States — led the organization to once again recommend universal indoor masking in school settings.

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’s updated guidance comes a week after the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended all children over age 2 wear masks when they return to school this year, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC’s K-12 guidance recommends a layered approach to preventing Covid, meaning using multiple prevention strategies consistently together, including vaccinations for those eligible, masking and physical distancing.

Given the CDC’s 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 masks for extended periods of time.

SKIP AHEAD Best face masks for kids

What type of face mask should students wear?

The CDC recommends that everyone over 2 years old wear a well-fitting mask featuring two or more layers of fabric and an adjustable nose wire. The mask should also completely cover the mouth and nose, the CDC says. Reusable cloth masks, disposable masks and respirators like KN95s and N95s all fit this description, and double masking has been recommended by the CDC and medical experts, too. But 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, said Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and a professor at Stony Brook University.

“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.

Evolvetogether Kids Face Masks

Available in Milan (black), NYC (white), Amazonia (green), Tokyo (gray) and Paris (blue), Evolvetogether’s disposable kids face masks are made for those ages 3 to 10 years old. They come in packs of seven or 30 and with sheets of decorative decals. The masks are designed with four layers, including a ​​water-resistant exterior, meltblown filter and moisture-absorbing interior. They feature an adjustable nose bridge and soft earloops, too.

Vida Kids KN95 Mask

If you choose to purchase a KN95 mask for your child, this one is designed for kids ages 3 and up and offers a five-layer filtration system of breathable fabric, along with a canonical shape that can make it comfortable for children. According to the brand, it can be reused two to three times if it’s worn sparingly. It’s also available in multiple colors, including Denim, Magenta and Lilac.

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, a primary care pediatrician, 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.

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