Careful, compliant mask wearing has proven hard for adult Americans to pull off – so it can’t help seeming like an ominous obstacle for families and educators contemplating a return to classrooms, activities and, someday, summer camps.

But local program directors have been testing how to reopen small camp sessions since last June, and they, like local school districts testing the water with limited in-person attendance, have learned a lot about the capacity of kids to do better than we imagined.

“I remember talking with some camp director colleague friends over the summer – how can we expect kids to wear these face coverings? I can’t envision this 6-year-old or 8-year-old or even 10-year-old wearing this all day. The reality is that the kids have been doing a wonderful job,” said Los Altos native Dave Barth, who founded Run for Fun Camps. “The kids have been doing a really nice job wearing the mask the right way to the best of their ability and following the rules – I think they understand it’s important.”

Barth has continued, when permitted, to operate camps over the past eight months, supported by careful conversation with Santa Clara County to track evolving health rules for camps. Frequent phone calls to the county’s business hotline helped clarify whether camps can operate right now (they can) and under what terms.

“I’m someone who feels deeply responsible for the health of the campers and families in our programs – we want to be as safe as possible,” Barth said.

Parents are required to commit to only one camp/activity in any three-week period, so students aren’t sharing exposure between communities. Run for Fun is operating exclusively outdoors, requires all participants to mask, and Barth said that Los Altos’ Recreation and Community Services division “came through in the clutch recently” in issuing emergency permits for displaced businesses to use local parks.

“That, to me, was so awesome – we’re all displaced right now,” he said. “I’ve never worked with the city of Los Altos until this year, and both it and Palo Alto have been awesome to work with. It’s been a heck of a journey. Like most camps out there, we shut down from March 17 to beginning of summer, then in early August before the schools reopened in person, we went for it and launched it.”

Andrew Yee/Special to the Town Crier Camps like Run for Fun find masks can stay in place during vigorous play.

Initially, the learning curve required making sure that campers arrived with a mask, and maintaining a stack of spare masks as backup.

“Kids in general were really good about showing up with their mask on before they checked in with our admin staff for health screening every day,” Barth said. “There are times where it’s a quick, ‘Hey, can we tighten that up around the nose or tighten that up behind your ears to make sure that it’s a firm fit that’s appropriate?’”

How to mask: Kids’ edition

The Los Altos School District set a mask requirement for all of its students, transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, and the limited return of younger classes provided a testing ground for mask compliance. Their observations can provide a rubric for other programs preparing to relaunch. Covington School Principal Wade Spenader said they weren’t sure how the youngest learners would handle it, but virtual mask practice in the run-up to in-person classes helped, as did parent meetings that set out the policy and strategies for how to support children struggling with the new accessory. Creating opportunities for a mask break – when a child can step outside and take a breather – helped, Spenader added, but overall he’s seen kids blithely staying masked not just in the classroom, but also running around at recess.

“I would credit our parents for setting the tone at home as far as what the expectation is,” he said. “They do a great job.”

The school has faced a few challenges when families struggled to find a mask that fits kids, completely covering the nose and mouth. Basic disposable masks, in a child’s size, have worked well, but some kids like sporting funny or whimsical masks, Spenader observed.

“Our decision to say everybody’s going to wear a mask took away the ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’ ‘I’m worried that if I wear a mask, I’ll stand out,’” he said. “It’s what everybody’s doing – there’s that little peer pressure. … We get to go back to school because we are wearing our masks; if we don’t wear our masks, we don’t get to come back. They have been really, really happy to come back to school.”

Champions, which runs day care and holiday break camps at Covington and Santa Rita schools, has been providing in-person care with a similar mask policy. Enrollment is now open to any Los Altos School District student.

Stefanie Gindi, the site director for Champions at Covington, said students, particularly of essential workers, have been attending while their parents work since the initial reopening last spring, even during periods when the district is exclusively remote. She’s observed that “gentle reminders” do the trick to support mask wearing, and that masks with straps that run behind the head are often easier to pull down than those with ear loops.

Rethinking youth masks: Can we design for better safety?

A particularly streamlined kid-sized mask that you may spot being tested in the Mountain View/Los Altos area debuted in December, thanks to a side project by Sunnyvale resident Kevin Ngo. He started designing a reusable mask for his children that could filter at an N95 level or better during smoke season two years ago. When the pandemic began, he realized that this niche project – designing a washable, nonslip mask with replaceable, high-quality filtration – could have a big community impact.

Ngo and a few friends experienced in product and industrial design developed Flo Masks by 3D scanning the faces of many children of various ages and ethnicities, an effort that required volunteers from friends and family and after-hours access, acquired on a rental basis, to a very expensive scanner a local company was willing to share for a good cause. The goal was to create a tailored fit – which could hug the skin around the mouth and nose – while still being comfortable for breathing and movement, and effective at protecting the user.

They confirmed that there was enough commonality among children’s faces that they could build a mask made of silicone molded to plastic, for which one size fits kindergartners to fifth-graders. After rapid prototyping with a 3D printer and adjusting based on how it felt for kids in the real world, they turned to a medical and aerospace filter manufacturer in Illinois to create the disposable filter inserts that complete the product.

Ngo said parents can set children up for success by taking time in advance to make sure that a mask is comfortable, not just grabbing one when rushing out the door. Dr. Shelly Miller, one of the pediatricians the Ngo family ran their masks by during the development process, said some parents mistakenly make assumptions about their children’s resistance to masks in advance. Miller, who practices at Menlo Park-based Burgess Pediatrics, did a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases and has followed the messaging around how and why we wear masks. She said that if an entire family demonstrates thoughtful behavior, children as young as 2 years old have no trouble joining in. Having a device like the Flo Mask, which stays snug over the nose and uses higher-grade filtration than cloth masks, is a bonus, but Miller said she’s seen families adopt consistent masking using many products.

“I think it’s totally doable, as with much else we have in behavior and kids,” she said, noting that kids can rally to meet an expectation – for better or for worse. “This is just a huge culture shift. In Asia, they wear a mask to protect those around them, and we’re obviously not very good at doing that.”

Ngo works in consumer electronics as a product manager by day. Developing the masks in his own time as a project for the public good aligns with his family’s interests – his wife manages COVID drug trials for pharmaceutical companies trying to secure U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

“Normally, I have to put myself in someone else’s shoes, but I was developing for myself as a parent,” Ngo said. “It makes me so sad when I hear my kids talk about ‘back before we needed to wear a mask, before coronavirus.’ I explain to them why it’s important for them to wear it. If it’s uncomfortable, they’re not going to want to do it – but they’re going to protect themselves and others.”

For more information on children and mask wearing from the American Academy of Pediatrics, visit bit.ly/AAPmasks. For more information on the Flo Mask and how it was developed, visit flomask.com.