An Alberta mother is voicing her frustration — and offering modification options — after seeing the size and fit of the masks being supplied to students in schools across the province.
Sarah Mackey’s oldest daughter, who is in Grade 3, came home from school Wednesday wearing one of the masks given to students by the provincial government. She was shocked to see how large it was on the eight year old’s face.
“It’s just hanging off her face,” Mackey said. “This is not a well-fitting medical mask. This is a baggy piece of fabric that’s serving a decorative purpose and not a functional one.
“I have a big face, I have a big head, I wear the largest style of KN95 masks. I can wear this mask. It fits me actually pretty well.
“It’s insulting to think that this is what they think is going to look like taking action to try to prevent the spread of COVID in schools.”
Mackey’s daughter typically wears a KN95 respirator-style mask, but she admits that’s a “function of privilege.”
“These kids that don’t have access to these higher-quality masks, they should have the opportunity to protect themselves from COVID and what they’re getting instead is sort of what feels like, ‘Oh, well we sent masks.’ What is the point of sending a mask that’s not even going to function for what it claims to be for?
“What are parents supposed to do who don’t have access to other masks? Most of the kids that I’ve talked to, they’re just going to keep wearing the masks they already had. But at that point, why did we go to all this trouble to send out all these masks if they weren’t even going to be functional?”
A request for comment from the Alberta government on the size of the provincially supplied masks was not immediately returned Thursday morning.
The return to in-person learning after the winter break for all Alberta students was delayed by one week; kids went back to the classroom on Monday.
The province said all students, upon their return to school this week, would be sent home with rapid test kits and medical-grade masks.
Some, including the Opposition NDP, questioned why students weren’t being equipped with higher-grade masks such as KN95s or N95s.
During a news conference Thursday, NDP MLA David Eggen called on the province to provide N95 masks for all students and staff.
“Instead of proper, well-fitted protection, the UCP made school staff separate medical masks into Ziploc bags. These masks that don’t even actually fit and fall well short of what is needed to stop transmission,” Eggen said.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health has said generally that while N95s are an option for people in public settings, “it is important to remember that a well-fitting medical mask provides significant benefit and any single layer of protection that we put in place is not enough by itself.”
“There is very little evidence to suggest that in a community setting using N95 masks is going to provide a significant additional benefit to wearing a well-fitted, high-quality medical mask,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Jan. 4.
“There have been countries that have attempted to use universal N95 masking. It has not changed the trajectory of transmission. N95 masks are appropriate in occupational settings. However, in the general public, including in places like a school, the challenges of wearing a tightly fit mask and the discomfort and some of the issues that happen when wearing those for prolonged periods of time, those challenges are not trumped by any theoretical potential incremental benefit.”
Premier Jason Kenney also noted that N95s are a lot more expensive than medical masks.
“They’re about $3.25 a piece versus about 80 or 90 cents a piece for the medical-grade masks. But we’d be prepared to spend that if the advice we had, the data, supported this as being a meaningful improvement in terms of protection,” he said on Jan. 4.
Emergency room physician Dr. Joe Vipond hasn’t seen the masks personally, but said parents have sent him pictures of them.
He said he was concerned when he heard kids would be provided with medical masks, particularly during this Omicron-driven wave. The Omicron variant is much more transmissible than previous variants of COVID-19.
“This is an airborne-transmitted virus and as such, it’s really important that airborne precautions be used. I’ve been recommending for a long time now that the public consider going to respirator-style masks like N95s, KN95s,” Vipond said.
“Everything I’ve seen in the last 24 hours has confirmed that unless there are pretty impressive modifications made to the masks that they are not fitting well and therefore do not provide the safety for sitting in a classroom surrounded by students for many hours.”
Mackey said the masks sent home with her daughter are anything but well-fitting.
“The notion that these are going to fit anybody well is ludicrous.”
In hopes of helping other families, Mackey took to social media Wednesday night to offer some modifications that can be made to the medical-grade masks. She shared those tips with Global News on Thursday morning.
She said her daughters wear ear savers, which help pull the mask further back and closer to their faces. In addition, she ordered adjusters that can be threaded on the ends of the ear loops, in order to make the mask fit more tightly.
Her other modification is what she calls the “knot the tuck.”
The first step is to fold the mask in half horizontally, then tie a knot in both of the ear loops as close to the edge of the mask as possible. Then, tuck the mask under the knot to close the hole created between the knot and the mask. Mackey said it’s easy for the mask to pop out and create a gap, so she puts a piece of medical tape over the tuck, which holds it in place.
“It fits much more closely, especially to these small kid’s faces. It totally seals off their mouth and nose.”
Watch Mackey demonstrate the knot and tuck below
However, Mackey said it shouldn’t fall on kids, parents or school staff to spend time modifying masks.
“How much time are we going to be asking either kids in classes, teachers, school staff or families to be spending to modify these masks to make them slightly functional when we could have just sent more functional masks in the first place? It just feels like a waste of time,” she said.
“We also really want to see the government invest in the higher-quality masks that are out there.”
Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney are scheduled to provide an update on COVID-19 Thursday afternoon.