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Researchers are looking into what masks are best for teachers when student return to the classroom. Vlada Maestro/Getty Images
  • Guidance from the CDC states that wearing a mask not only protects others from your expelled respiratory droplets, but can also protect you from other people’s illnesses as well.
  • But for educators, wearing a mask may mean that your students can’t understand you.
  • Now, new research has found the best types of masks for staying safe and being heard in the classroom.

Many hoped that wearing a mask would be short lived, but as we come to the end of 2020, masks have turned into something we use every day.

As many schools open throughout the country, educators and students have adapted to ensure safety in the learning environment.

Teaching and learning depend greatly on a student’s ability to comprehend what an instructor is saying.

But the physical presence of a mask can dampen the acoustics of a teacher’s voice, making it difficult for students to hear what their teacher is saying.

As some schools have stayed open during the most recent COVID-19 surge, researchers have been investigating which mask is the least intrusive for teachers.

Pasquale Bottalico, PhD, assistant professor in the department of speech and hearing science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been studying the effects of masks on communication.

He presented his findings earlier this month at the Acoustical Society of America conference.

“Because of the problems that COVID-19 is forcing us to face, the significance of my study consists in giving recommendations on the best type of masks to wear while teaching to minimize their negative effect on speech intelligibility,” Bottalico told Healthline.

In their research, experts found that reusable fabric and cloth masks tend to absorb sound, making it difficult for students to hear what teachers are saying.

The reason for this is how fabric affects sound waves.

“Fabrics are often used for sound absorption due to their porous structure,” Bottalico said in a press release. “A porous material absorbs sound energy as it dampens the oscillation of the air particles through friction.”

When comparing the most popular masks that are currently used today — three-layer fabric masks, surgical masks, and N95 masks — the most favorable for comprehension was a surgical or N95 mask.

However, N95 masks remain difficult to get as they’re needed by healthcare workers treating people with COVID-19.

As a result, we asked if KN95 masks, which are more available, would be a good substitution.

Although not specifically studied, Bottalico believes that “the KN95 should be equivalent to the N95.”

Bottalico and his team are currently investigating the intelligibility of masks in elementary students and in young adults who use cochlear implants as well.

A study in October concluded that KN95 masks weren’t as effective as N95 masks, although researchers said they could be useful for people who aren’t considered high risk.

Although N95 and KN95 masks have similar names, they’re not the same mask, despite many similarities.

N95 masks are considered the gold standard in protecting against disease-causing pathogens.

These masks can filter up to 95 percent of small particles — such as those associated with a bacterial or viral illness. However, the availability and practicality of this mask may not be the best choice for every day and non-healthcare users such as educators.

Although similarly named, the KN95 is another mask that’s more readily available.

KN95 masks are said to be able to filter between 94–95 percent of particulate matter, and authentic KN95 respirators can provide equivalent protection to an N95 mask.

“KN95 masks may be a good alternative to an N95 if the masks are appropriately certified,” said Dr. David Aronoff, director of the department of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The CDC recommends that the public doesn’t purchase N95 masks for personal use. While they’re considered the most effective, they’re still considered to be critical supplies for healthcare workers — those individuals on the frontlines, helping to fight COVID-19.

As an alternative, Dr. Len Horovitz, pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline, “KN95 masks fit well but quality depends on the manufacturer, and true N95 masks combined with face shields are only recommended for healthcare workers.”

To ensure proper protection and use, N95 masks need to be fitted to provide the greatest safety. Gaps or breaks in the seal can cause them to be less effective.

Although KN95 masks aren’t exactly like N95 respirators, they’re similar in many ways.

Both masks require testing and authentication by regulatory agencies, have multiple layers of protection for wearers, and can aid in small droplet protection from bacterial and viral pathogens.

In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the governing body that regulates masks. However, different agencies regulate masks overseas, including KN95 masks which are regulated in China, FFP2 masks in Europe, and P2 masks in Australia.

“The basic difference has to do with who certifies the masks for performance, [the U.S. for N95 and China for KN95]. There are different certification parameters, but both are stringent,” said Aronoff.

Due to the critical need for respirators and regulated face masks during this pandemic, the FDA has created emergency use authorization for certain respirators that have met the CDC recommendations to prevent significant exposure from COVID-19.

The list of companies that have been given FDA authorization to sell respirators has significantly grown in the continued fight against COVID-19.

Aronoff told Healthline, “It is important to buy masks that come from reputable suppliers, and it is ideal if consumers have access to basic information about performance” to ensure the best quality and protection.

“Teachers should wear masks that are recommended by the CDC — those which fit properly, are breathable, and allow the teacher’s voice to be heard,” Aronoff recommended.

However, masks are only one part of a multipronged approach.

Ensuring that symptomatic or exposed individuals stay at home, optimizing circulation in classrooms, and creating distance between students and teachers without yelling can all lower viral progression.

Guidance from the CDC states that wearing a mask not only protects others from your expelled respiratory droplets, but can also protect you from other people’s illnesses as well.

“Every study of mask use has shown at least a 70 percent reduction in aerosol transmission if masking is consistent,” said Horovitz.

Wearing a mask needs to be as natural as wearing clothes to work and putting on a seat belt when you drive a car.

Aronoff advises that “while COVID-19 activity is high, we need to do all we can to limit transmission risk. Now is a great time for teachers to continue to demonstrate leadership to their students and colleagues.”