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Facing the surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, some colleges are upgrading their face-masking requirements for the spring semester. They say cloth masks will no longer be sufficient and are mandating KN95s or other medical-grade masks instead.

The University of Southern California announced last week it is requiring “medical grade masks, which at minimum are surgical masks and may also include higher grade respirator masks (N95, KN95, or KF94)” in all campus locations where masks are required, including indoor common spaces, public areas, classrooms, libraries, offices and laboratories.

In its announcement, USC cited updated guidance from the California Department of Public Health ranking the effectiveness of masks, with N95s being most protective against COVID-19, followed by KF94s, KN95s and fitted surgical masks, followed by unfitted surgical masks and lastly by the least effective option, cloth masks.

The University of Arizona also adjusted its masking requirement to require surgical or higher-grade masks in all indoor campus spaces. President Robert C. Robbins said during a discussion of the university’s COVID policies Monday that masks will be available at the entrance of classrooms and buildings and that staff and faculty members can obtain them from a building manager.

“Please note that cloth masks will no longer meet the face covering requirement,” Arizona’s updated guidance says. “However, you may combine a cloth mask (top layer) and a surgical mask (bottom layer) to improve fit and increase protection.”

Cornell University also announced cloth masks alone will no longer meet its masking requirement and said it will “provide high-quality (e.g., N95, KN95) masks to campus community members who need them.”

The California Institute of Technology announced last week it is providing KN95s and N95s for all employees, students and instructors through the Caltech store, and the university will hand out packs of 10 N95s or five KN95s to individuals who present their Caltech identification.

“Medical-grade masks—which are surgical masks, or higher-level respirators, such as N95 filtering facepiece respirators or KN95s—have been shown to be more effective than cloth face coverings in preventing the spread of the virus that [causes] COVID-19,” Jennifer Howes, Caltech’s assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness, wrote in a Jan. 6 update to the campus’s masking policy. “Cloth face coverings, of any kind, will no longer be permitted for use in any indoor spaces on campus.”

Bowdoin College in Maine similarly announced Monday that “only surgical, KN95, or equivalent (N95, KF-94) masks are acceptable on the Bowdoin campus.” The college said surgical masks are available at no cost to Bowdoin students and employees.

Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, said the association is waiting for updated guidance for higher education institutions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before it recommends one type of mask over another. “Although the data is out there that really pretty much proves that the KN95s, the N95s, the KF94s are all much preferable to the cloth masks,” Taylor said. “If we want to be safe about this, we really should be wearing those.”

“You have to think about the cost—who pays for them, who gets them,” Taylor added. “Those are all factors that have to be considered, and all of our colleges are different. Some are very small. Some are very well resourced. Some ask students to buy the masks. Some provide them for them.”

Some colleges are specifically requiring KN95s in classrooms.

The University of Maryland at College Park is requiring that all students attending in-person classes wear KN95 masks in class. North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college, is requiring KN95s for all faculty members and students in classrooms. The university said it would distribute KN95 and disposable medical masks for all on-campus and commuter students.

Elsewhere in the state, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came under criticism on social media for seemingly discouraging KN95s after the university posted an article on its faculty and staff news site Monday stating, incorrectly, that “KN95s remain in short supply, and the CDC says they should be reserved for health care workers who are taking care of COVID-19 patients in the hospital.”

The CDC does not recommend against nonmedical personnel using KN95s, although it does state that specially labeled “surgical” N95s should be prioritized for health-care workers. The CDC says that “when supplies are available, individuals may choose to use a basic disposable N95 respirator for personal use, instead of a mask, in some situations.”

UNC Health news director Alan M. Wolf said the article referred to KN95 masks instead of N95 masks in error, and the article had been updated. The references to KN95 masks were deleted from the article, which discusses the importance of wearing properly fitted masks.

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