Sending your child off to college this fall?

As thousands of students return to their universities, their risk of contracting COVID-19 from airplanes, Uber rides, and crowded grocery stores has dramatically increased. If you want to make sure your child is safe, you’ll need the right kind of mask.

Finding the scientifically correct information about coronavirus can be extremely challenging, and there are many misconceptions about wearing a mask, different types of masks, and the risk factors of COVID-19. 

Can You Correctly Answer the True/False Questions Below?

False. The purpose of cloth face masks is to protect others around you from contracting infectious virus particles, not the other way around. If everyone at the grocery store is wearing a cloth mask, they are all protected, but if only one person is wearing a mask it will not protect them from anyone else who may have an asymptomatic case of COVID-19. Although it is extremely important to wear a cloth mask given no better alternative, and the usage of cloth masks is crucial on a wide-scale public health level, students who wear a cloth mask around others who are either wearing their masks improperly or not wearing a mask at all, such as on the airplane while travelling back to school, can still contract COVID-19. 

False. Although medical professionals who treat COVID-19 patients do wear surgical N95 masks, standard-grade N95 masks that are equally effective at filtering virus particles but that are not certified for medical use are also available for purchase by the general public. Although it is important that protective equipment specifically certified for medical use is reserved for doctors on the front lines, you can also buy N95 masks intended for consumers that are equally effective at protecting you from getting sick. A number of companies are selling N95 respirator masks that are NIOSH certified but not certified for medical use and are available for purchase by the general public.

False. Although it is true that young people are much more likely to experience mild symptoms of COVID-19, the risk of the virus running rampant through college dorm buildings will still certainly pose a real health threat to the students living in them, especially because school health services may not be sufficiently prepared for a large influx of sick patients. In addition, there is much still unknown about the long-term effects of COVID-19, even for younger people.

False. Although it is true that college students are at lower risk for contracting a serious form of COVID-19 and in many cases only interact with other college students, they will likely also be coming into contact with professors and other adults who work on college campuses who may not have masks that adequately protect them from the college students they interact with. In addition, large outbreaks on college campuses might lead to students being sent home early, meaning that students will be traveling from a high-risk campus to homes with parents, grandparents, and other adults who are not young and at low risk. Even if college students themselves don’t want to wear more protective masks, parents will be safer wearing them in the event that they need to pick up their child early from a campus experiencing a widespread COVID-19 outbreak.

If you answered any of the above questions incorrectly, you might not know what it takes to protect you and your family from COVID-19. If you want to make sure you are protected as your child returns to school this fall, read the information below.

Here's What You Need To Know:

Cloth masks, which have been the most common form of mask worn by the general public, work by preventing those who may have contracted COVID-19 but not yet realize it from expelling infectious virus particles into the air around them. Because there was a shortage of surgical N95 masks at the beginning of the pandemic, it was crucial for as many people as possible to make and wear cloth masks so that anyone who had contracted the virus but didn’t know it wouldn’t spread it to others. The problem is that many people wear their masks improperly (such as with the nose exposed) or refuse to wear a mask altogether. Even worse, recent studies have shown that infected individuals wearing gaiters and bandanas are more likely to infect others around them, because these types of masks actually break down large droplets into aerosols which are more easily distributed to others. Although on a larger-scale public health level it is extremely important for as many people as possible to be wearing any type of mask that limits the expulsion of droplets, on an individual basis wearing a cloth mask is not very effective at preventing the wearer from getting sick in high-risk settings where nearby individuals are not wearing a mask at all. The problem is that because many people don’t realize that the purpose of a cloth mask is to protect others, they think it is okay to not wear a mask as long as anyone who is at higher risk or simply more worried about contracting COVID-19 has one on. Because cloth masks aren’t designed to provide protection to the wearer from others around them, people who are wearing cloth masks in higher-risk settings such as on airplanes or in indoor classrooms are putting themselves at risk from others wearing gaiters, bandanas, improperly worn masks, or no masks at all. 

Many people argue that because college students are young, COVID-19 poses no risk to them. Although it may be true that college-aged students are more likely to contract mild forms of COVID-19, they are inevitably going to be coming into contact with students who are attending crowded parties or not taking the threat of the virus seriously. A large outbreak could overwhelm school health resources, and even students who contract milder forms of the disease may suffer long-term consequences that scientists have yet to discover. An outbreak at a university might prompt students to be sent home, putting parents and grandparents who are much more likely to contract serious forms of COVID-19 at risk. Parents of students who attend campuses that are shut down due to an outbreak may have to enter high-risk dorm buildings to move their children out, and their cloth masks will not protect them from college students who are not wearing masks properly. 

What about surgical and KN95 masks?

Surgical masks and KN95 masks are other examples of face masks that have been used during the pandemic. It is important to know the level of protection each type of mask provides.

Surgical masks work similarly to cloth masks, although the main difference is that they are regulated by the FDA and are made out of a fluid resistant fabric. They are designed to protect the wearer against large droplets or other splashes of bodily fluids, but they do not filter airborne particles or provide respiratory protection. They also do not seal around the mouth, so leakages occur around the edges of the mask. Like cloth masks, the purpose of wearing a surgical mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is to protect others from inhaling potentially infectious virus particles produced by the wearer, not the other way around. Surgical masks are certainly effective at this purpose, but wearers should know that they are not protecting themselves by wearing them. Click here for a CDC infographic that explains the key differences between surgical masks and N95 respirators

KN95 masks, unlike surgical masks and cloth masks, actually do provide respiratory protection. They are regulated by the Chinese government, and like N95 masks, they are designed to filter 95% of airborne particles. The key difference between them is that the straps on an N95 mask wrap around the back of the head, whereas the straps on a KN95 mask attach behind the ears, meaning that N95 masks more effectively create an air-tight seal and prevent leakages around the edge of the mask. The main problem with KN95 masks is that because they are not regulated by the U.S. certification systems, it can be extremely difficult to determine whether or not they are counterfeit. In comparison, N95 masks are NIOSH certified and regulated by the CDC, which makes it easy to determine that they are legitimate. Although the KN95 mask is an alternative mask option that provides respiratory protection to the wearer, even when coming in contact with others not wearing a mask, the potential risk of accidentally purchasing a counterfeit mask makes NIOSH-certified N95 masks a better option. 

Given all of the above, parents should know that there is only one smart option to ensure that their children are safe: N95 personal respirator masks. These offer the best possible respiratory protection, with multiple layers of materials that trap viral particles of virtually any size. 

One of the most common misconceptions about N95 masks is that they should only be used by medical professionals. Surgical N95 masks are certified specifically for medical use, and these masks should not be purchased by anyone else. However, standard grade N95 respirators that are NIOSH certified by the CDC are not certified for medical use but still provide respiratory protection to the wearer, and a number of companies are selling them for purchase by the general public. These masks are readily available at a low cost, and are the best way to ensure that you and your children are safe in risky indoor environments.

N95 Masks Can Be Reserved for the Riskiest Environments

College students may object to full time use of an N95. Because they seal around the face, they are harder to breathe through and can be uncomfortable over a long period of time. Students can have cloth and/or surgical masks (although they should not be wearing gaiters or bandanas, which increase the risk to others around them) for when they are outside walking around campus or in places with good ventilation and lots of space, although they should know that these masks do not protect them from others who are not wearing masks. However, when they are venturing to the store, the doctor’s office, the subway, an Uber ride, or an airplane, wearing their N95 respirator will best protect them. They will be taking responsibility for their own safety, and for the safety of you and their grandparents and their professors and all the other vulnerable people with whom they come in contact. You’ll be able to worry less about them coming in contact with inconsiderate people choosing to wear their masks improperly or not wear a mask at all. You’ll know that you have made the smart choice.

Where to Buy Masks

IvyN95s has sourced NIOSH certified N95s direct from EasternPPEImports.

About IvyN95s

As thousands of college students return to universities, there is a real risk that college campuses will become hotspots for COVID-19. With so much misinformation surrounding how masks work, the purpose of different types of masks, and the availability of standard-grade N95 respirators, we wanted to create a site that will help parents become informed about mask wearing and purchase more protective masks in order to best ensure that they and their college students are as safe as possible as they return to school. Read more about us.