PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As a growing list of Oregon schools have announced temporary closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks and staffing-related issues, the lack of consistency surrounding child mask guidance continues to be a source of concern for parents. 

Amid the omicron surge, Oregon Health Authority officials and other health leaders have urged residents to upgrade from cloth masks to N95, KN95, K594, or other NIOSH-Approved respirators for the best protection against the highly transmissible variant.

But for parents with young kids, the guidance on N95s can still be murky.

According to the current CDC mask guidelines, N95 masks have not been widely tested on kids, and are not recommended for children under 2 years old. 

These health-grade masks were designed for adults and can be expensive or difficult to find. At the time of this article, the use of N95 respirators is still listed on the CDC website as being ‘prioritized for healthcare personnel.’

However, OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie said children older than 2 years old should have an upgraded mask made for children “to ensure for proper fit” by checking for the mask to fit over the nose and mouth and under the chin without any gaps around the sides.

The conflicting recommendations surrounding children and N95 masks have proven to be a source of frustration for parents looking to protect students during the state’s highest reported infection rates.

According to data obtained by KOIN 6 News, on the first day back from winter break, the Beaverton School District (BSD) reported 5,107 student absences. 

While not all student absences can be attributed to COVID-19, the data shows a major drop in attendance when compared to the 2,895 student absences reported for the first day back from winter break on January 6, 2020.

KOIN 6 News reached out to the Beaverton School District (BSD) for clarification on recommendations for upgrading student masks. 

“We’re recommending N95, KN95 and KF94, especially for our older students,” said BSD Public Communications Officer, Shellie Bailey-Shah. “If parents have concerns, especially about younger children, they should opt for a surgical mask close to the face with a cloth mask over that to ensure a tighter fit.”

She continued. “The least effective option is a simple cloth mask; we would discourage the use of cloth masks only.”

For students and families who do not have access to face coverings, BSD said they are offering students three-ply surgical masks at no cost. 

Regarding the lack of consistency among official CDC guidance for student masks, BSD said the agency’s information is outdated. 

“The CDC official guidelines online are behind,”  Bailey-Shah said. “Just in the last two days, the CDC has indicated a need to update the guidance. N95s are no longer in short supply and only being reserved for healthcare professionals, so that’s not an issue.  Parents ultimately will decide what masks their children should wear.”

While the CDC has not released any official updates to mask guidance, the Washington Post reported the agency is looking to update its mask guidance to recommend N95 or KN95 masks.

When asked why OHA has not enforced the use of N95 masks in schools, State Health Officer Dean Sidelinger said Thursday, “Certainly a respirator type, like I can N95 or KF94 can be a quality mask, but does it fit well and is it comfortable?”

He continued, “Wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask provides quality filtration, and that cloth mask over the surgical mask improves the fit. And in many community settings, including schools, it provides very good protection to the individual as well as source control — keeping the virus particles in if that person is sick and happens to be in that environment.”