by Andrew Garda

With the new school year, parents and caregivers are as concerned as ever about how to keep their kids safe, whether in pods or hanging out with friends, or when they eventually go back to the classroom.

The 19-24 age group now has the highest percentage of positivity of COVID-19 in the state at 6 percent, with 14- to 18-year-olds coming in second at 4 percent, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said. 

Health officials are reporting an increase in social gatherings during August, which is driving transmission of the virus among younger populations. These populations can also be asymptomatic and spread the virus.

At least six school districts that had started hybrid learning last week have switched to virtual learning, after those districts had students and teachers test positive for COVID-19. 

Former Montclair Councilwoman Renée Baskerville, a pediatrician and the former school physician for East Orange Campus High, said there’s no magical quick fix to get back to normalcy and no one approach for every school. 

But she advocates for mask wearing and has been working with Masks in Montclair, in conjunction with the local chapter of the NAACP, to distribute free masks and promote mask-wearing outdoors.

“The process will require a collaborative effort with educators, administrators, students and families, environmental and security professionals, medical personnel, including nurses, school physicians, psychiatrists, as well as psychologists, counselors and scientists,” she said.

Dorian Vicente, the N.J. State School Nurses Association president, echoed that sentiment.

“One of the most important things parents can do is understand and follow the protocols that are being set by the school related to COVID-19,” Vicente said. 

That goes especially for a child who shows symptoms and needs to be sent home, she said. Parents need a plan to quickly pick them up so they don’t linger at school. 

Quarantining is also essential, Vicente said. Parents must make sure a symptomatic child stays home so they don’t increase the risk of transmission. This applies to visits with friends or playing on a sports team as well. If a child has symptoms, such as a fever, or is otherwise unwell, parents have to stand firm and keep them isolated from friends and teammates.

Baskerville said social distancing and masks are critical to beating COVID-19, even at outdoor sports events.

“All teammates on sports teams who are on the bench should have their masks on,” she said. “Any teammates who do not comply and don’t have a medical excuse, or a newly arising breathing problem, should be given one warning and then removed from the team for noncompliance. There should be 6 feet of social distancing between the teammates on the bench.” 



However, which masks are good and which are not? A recent study by Duke University rated the effectiveness of gaiter-style masks, for example, and concluded that the thin, stretchy material they are made of will not contain the virus, with bandannas and knitted masks on the low end of effectiveness as well. Fitted N95 masks were rated as most effective, and cotton, poly/cotton blend and surgical masks also rated highly. 

The scientists behind the study claim the data was misinterpreted by some media outlets, according to the Duke Chronicle, saying the writers made broad assumptions.

“It was a development of a simple technique. It was not a systematic study of masks,” said Martin Fischer, associate research professor in the department of chemistry and a main researcher for the study. “The interpretation was that all neck gaiters suck. That is not what we said.” 

During the study, researchers tested droplets expelled from a speaker’s mouth while speaking and wearing 14 commonly available masks. A computer algorithm was then used to count how many droplets were expelled while wearing each mask.

The study recorded more droplets from the speaker’s mouth when they were wearing the neck gaiter as opposed to other masks. The paper indicated that the droplets appeared to disperse smaller as well, and that result created a large amount of media attention.

Baskerville still feels most neck gaiters are less helpful than many other options. 

“A gaiter neck cover or neck fleece will not prevent or retard the spread of coronavirus,” she said. “It may actually spread more virus than wearing no mask at all. Wearing these types of mouth and nose covers takes larger particles when you speak and disburses them into many smaller droplets when you speak through them. Considering that the smaller droplets are airborne longer than larger droplets, this gives us a clue as to why they may be counterproductive.”

Baskerville also said that bandanas that are not three-ply or are not sewn in such a way that they fit snugly over the nose will also not prevent the spread of the virus.


What does work? 

“Cloth masks are what I recommend for all individuals, unless they are high-risk. I recommend an N95 mask for them,” she said.

According to Baskerville, cloth masks trap droplets when a person talks, sneezes or laughs, and they are something people can make on their own. For kids fifth grade or above, she suggested that schools, teams and clubs could encourage students to take part in making their own masks.

“Cloth masks can be made from household items like sheets, old clothing, such as T-shirts that are no longer wearable, if it is made from very tightly woven cotton,” she said, adding that the advantage to cloth masks is that they are washable and can be adjusted to fit comfortably across different faces.

While N95 masks are very effective, they are also scarce, and most in the medical community feel they should be reserved for first responders and hospital staff.

Baskerville also said that it is very important for kids to learn about the pandemic and the COVID-19 virus, as long as it is age-appropriate. 

“Students should be encouraged to write about coronavirus and its impact on their family or friends, and discuss the important role of compliant masks in preventing the spread of the virus and why their mask would be appealing to other students of the same age group,” she said.

As for gatherings with friends, Baskerville said the rules are the same as for adults.

“Social distancing of at least 6 feet, wearing a mask, and frequent handwashing have demonstrated a retardant effect as related to stemming the spread of coronavirus,” she said. Learning about the impact of the virus will give them perspective on why those steps are so critical.

N.J. State School Nurses Association officials said children should be reminded about distancing, and to not share items such as notebooks, textbooks or computers.