As the omicron surge continues to destabilize California schools, teachers, students and families are demanding their districts provide KN95 or N95 masks – widely recognized as the most effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19 – to everyone on campuses.
It’s become common practice for districts to provide staff with those masks in some capacity, but few are providing them to students. Some districts, like Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified, have ordered KN95 masks for students. But California parents in large part have been left to fend for themselves if they want their children wearing the most protective masks — that is, if they can find ones they can afford.
Typical KN95 masks fit children only of middle and high school age, and there’s a nationwide shortage of smaller KN95 masks designed for younger children. N95 masks are not designed for children and have not been tested for children’s use, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Districts should expect to see at least some child-size KN95 masks provided by the state in the near future. The California Department of Health ordered the purchase of 6 million child-size KN95 masks, which will be sent in multiple shipments to county offices of education to give to districts, said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, which is handling the first-stage distribution of the masks. The first shipment will arrive at county offices of education within the next few days, Ferguson said.
There were about 3.4 million California students ages 12 and younger in the 2020-21 school year, according to the most recent Department of Education state enrollment data. Even anticipating an enrollment drop this year, the state’s allotment of child-size KN95 masks won’t leave districts with a large supply.
The shortage of children’s masks could get worse due to a reluctance by manufacturers to step up production, industry experts say. That makes it harder for both families and districts to get higher-quality masks for younger children and is driving up the price.
Tony Chen, whose 8-year-old and 10-year-old sons are enrolled at South Pasadena Unified, has resorted to ordering child-size KF94 masks in bulk directly from South Korea, where they are generally manufactured. Chen works in international shipping, and he put his knowledge to use by ordering shipments of 1,000 child-size KF94 masks to be air-freighted to Los Angeles County. He said he takes orders from about 40 other families in the district who pay 50-70 cents a mask and provides families with free samples, barely breaking even on the cost.
“People are afraid to send their kids to school, so we’re taking matters into our own hands,” Chen said.
The price of purchasing the masks that way is still about three times less than the options he saw on Amazon or other online retailers, Chen said. South Pasadena Unified hasn’t indicated plans to provide students with higher-quality masks. Over the past few weeks, Chen has ordered about 7,000 of the masks, he said.
“At the end of the day, all the folks in the supply chain are making money, and parents are just forking it out,” he said.
Kelly Carothers, director of government affairs for Project N95 – a nonprofit clearinghouse for personal protective equipment – said affordable, higher-quality masks for children are in short supply right now.
“If you want to pay $3 a mask you can go online and find something that’s not set to a standard, and you don’t know where it comes from, but you can claim it’s high quality,” she said.
Carothers chalks up the shortage to supply and demand. Up until Covid, child-size KN95 masks weren’t in demand in the United States, but as the demand has increased, “everyone’s trying to catch up,” she said.
Though some domestic manufacturers are making smaller-size masks, it’s hard for them to ramp up production, Carothers said. The machines that make higher-quality masks are made in China, and global supply chain challenges have prevented domestic manufacturers from getting the equipment from overseas. Manufacturers are also hesitant to risk investing in importing the machines because the demand could drop after the omicron surge passes.
Blue, a sophomore in Oakland who did not want to share their last name, said wearing a KN95 mask at school is especially important to them since they got sick from Covid over the holiday break. One of the worst Covid symptoms they experienced was intense migraines, Blue said, and at one point they even fainted.
“Even if you’re fully vaccinated and young, Covid can be pretty rough on your body. I know this from personal experience,” Blue said. “I’m just trying to keep teachers and students safe” by wearing a mask.
California Department of Public Health officials, in an email to EdSource, said N95, KN95, and KF94 masks are the best for preventing Covid, adding “a good fit and filtration continue to be the best way to get the most out of your mask.” The CDC updated its mask guidance Friday, stating KN95s offer more protection than surgical and cloth masks and that respirators such as N95s offer the highest level of protection.
KN95s are the Chinese version of N95s, and what puts them in the category of “high-quality masks” — along with South Korean KF94s — are the synthetic-fiber filters. KN95s and N95s are said to filter 95% of aerosol particles and KF94s are said to filter 94%. Two-layer cotton masks have only been found to filter out 43-62% of aerosol particles.
If families don’t have access to those masks, California public health officials advise wearing a surgical mask or a surgical mask with a cloth mask on top. Students who wear fabric masks are advised to opt for ones with three or more cloth layers.
Despite these recommendations, the state doesn’t require any specific types of masks to be worn in schools.
“Any type of mask that will be comfortably worn by a student is better than no mask at all,” California health officials said.
Supplying all students with KN95 masks was a top demand by a group of Oakland Unified students who signed a petition and protested the district’s safety protocols by calling out sick Tuesday. Groups of Oakland teachers who held sickout actions in the past few weeks had the same demand.
Though Oakland Unified was not supplying students with KN95 masks when they returned from winter break, the district ordered 200,000 KN95 masks about two weeks ago that have arrived and are being distributed to all 35,000 students. Despite the shortage, Oakland Unified spokesman John Sasaki said the district didn’t experience any problems ordering the masks.
The district was given a donation of an extra 10,000 KN95 masks by a local restaurateur. Some teachers were concerned that a number of the donated masks were close to 2 years old, past the effective period indicated on the packaging. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has determined that respirators can still be effective after their expiration date, but only if they are stored correctly.
Blue questioned what may happen when the district’s supply runs out. Though experts say the omicron surge could be nearing its peak in the Bay Area, Blue said the district should keep a supply of KN95 masks for students who want them. Their family has had trouble finding KN95 masks online, Blue said, and haven’t been able to look for them in stores since they’re in quarantine at home.
“We all know those masks aren’t going to last forever,” Blue said.
Sasaki said the district will continue assessing the situation and order more masks if needed.
Students and teachers at West Contra Costa Unified have also been calling on their district to provide KN95 masks to all students, not just two a week for staff like the district had previously promised. At last night’s school board meeting, district officials announced they had put in an order to provide enough KN95 masks for all students each day. Those masks are expected to arrive in the next five to 10 days, district spokesman Ryan Phillips said.
To make it easier for schools and parents to get KN95 masks, Carothers said the federal government should intervene. It’s hard for states to prop up manufacturing, she said, so the federal government should do so as it did for rapid tests.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced the purchase of 500 million at-home rapid Covid tests to be distributed to Americans for free. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will distribute more than 400 million N95 masks for free but made no mention of distributing free higher-quality masks that children could use.
“It would be helpful if the government took a larger role in ensuring that there’s adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), especially for children who are immunocompromised,” Carothers said.
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