Mask-ing the question

What kind of masks should students wear?

With emails already coming in covering new COVID cases popping up at RUHS, it’s time to take a serious look at what kinds of masks should be worn to prevent the spread, and what kinds our school should really avoid.

It’s common knowledge that masks are an easy and efficient way to protect those around you; a meta-analysis of 172 studies studies published in The Lancet in June looked at methods of intervention for COVID-19, SARS and MERS, and found that mask-wearing “significantly” reduces the risk of viral transmission. However, the efficiency of said masks depends on a couple of factors (other than knowing that the mask goes OVER the nose, and not under). 

When choosing the best mask, health professionals have emphasized focus on the fabric, fit, and breathability. A mask’s effectiveness is a matter of both material and how well it seals to your face. However, if you can’t breathe well through it, you’re much less likely to keep it on (which defeats the whole purpose). 

For fabric masks, first consider the fabric itself. Supratik Guha, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, believes that “the tightness of the weave” is most important. If you hold up your mask to the light and you can see the outline of individual fibers, it’s not going to make a great filter; researchers say the best bets lie in 100% cotton. Additionally, multiple studies have found that masks made of multiple layers are most effective at blocking small particles, and when it comes to shape, those that “cup tightly” to the face are the best fit. 

A special type of fabric mask, called the “neck gaiter,” works kind of like a scarf that wraps around your neck and hooks onto your nose. Although popular because of their comfort and “style,” many have proved to not be effective against the spread. In a study from Duke University, researchers concluded that fleece neck gaiters made from polyester and spandex aren’t effective in blocking COVID droplets. In fact, the people who were wearing the neck gaiters in that study spread more particles than the ones without, making the neck gaiters rank lower than no masks at all. Also, among the companies who produce them, many had to emphasize in public statements that they aren’t meant for medical use and are not approved officially by the CDC. 

Although some neck gaiters (with 100% cotton and multiple layers) have proven to work better than polyester, I still wouldn’t want our school to take the risk with distributing them. A much better choice would be the KN95s, which were proven to be the most effective in that same study, where it allowed “no droplets at all” to come out. Surgical masks would also be a better bet, for they also block the vast majority of respiratory droplets. Moreover, whether you decide to wear a fabric, surgical or KN95 mask, keep making sure to use them correctly and persistently. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we can not survive another school year through a screen.