By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Today, I want to address a simple, low-tech topic. Masks.
Now, many people disdain masks. Period. And they have their reasons – the least convincing of which, to my mind, is freedumb.
Others nominally comply – but make it clear, via sporting the ever-popular ‘chin diaper’- what they really think of the masking idea.
Neither of these is my audience.
Instead, I’m aiming at those who wear masks, but don’t do so properly. Something I noticed when I flew round-trip from NYC to LAX in late December, on a trip I very much wanted to put off, but couldn’t. (In fact, I would have gladly signed up for a root canal and a colonoscopy on the same day if I could have deferred that trip.)
As I passed through Newark airport and LAX, I noticed most people were wearing inadequate masks, cloth or surgical, without a Badger Seal or the equivalent. Even top-quality masks often looked ill-fitting. Lax masking may have been adequate to thwart earlier COVID-19 strains, but does little to arrest the delta variant, let alone omicron. It wasn’t only passengers who wore masks that aren’t up to the mark, but airline, airport, and TSA staff did the same as well.
Now, how is this still the case, two years into the pandemic? Why is the state of masking still so poor?
Rather than spilling lots of ink on those questions, I got to thinking how I would do things differently, if I were Mask Tsar for the feds or some state health authority. How about setting up mask stations at airports? Or other well-trafficked public meeting places?
At such stations, health officials could distribute genuine, aka non-counterfeit, effective masks – either N95, KN95, or other models that might emerge – for free. At the same time, health officials could demonstrate how to fit and wear masks properly. Such measures might go some way to mitigating the pandemic. But that would require politicians and health officials to step out in strong support of effective masking – a game neither really got into, instead as we know, using the ability to go mask-free as a perk of agreeing to vaccinate – and we all know how well that approach turned out.
Alas, ensuring effective masking isn’t as sexy – or profitable – as rolling out new vaccines or drugs. Neither of which has proved to be much of a panacea. Just another reason that COVID-19 infections continue to burgeon.
Pity the Teachers
Another obvious place to distribute masks and educate people about proper usage and fit is schools. So it’s with anger and consternation that I highlight here a Boston Globe story this week discussing the shambles the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has made of distributing free masks to teachers (see ‘Turned out to be a fiasco’: Mask controversy erodes Mass. educators’ faith in state). The aim was to issue each teacher with 30 masks – intended to be a six weeks’ supply.
Schools are a hotspot for COVID-19 spread. Ensuring effective masking – along with improved ventilation – could go some way to alleviating this problem. Kids get sick and they bring the virus home, where it can infect their parents, grandparents, and other family members.
Teachers are on the front-line of this battle. Masking up not only protects them and limits covid spread, but it also allows at least some teachers to provide an example to their students to show how masking should be done.
Over to the Globe:
Massachusetts educators — already stressed by a record surge in COVID-19 cases — reacted with disappointment and frustration this week when they learned that masks distributed by the state are a less protective, non-medical version of the high-quality KN95 masks they’d been promised. The ones thousands of them received had lost FDA approval in 2020.
And as a chaotic week of school reentry ended Friday, state leaders still had not explained how the lower-quality masks made it into circulation, or how much they spent on them: calls and e-mails to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which provided the masks, were not returned this week, and spokespersons for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Governor Charlie Baker did not respond to reporters’ questions.
The mask distribution “turned out to be a fiasco,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “There was bad information given to the districts. What’s tough about this is we all rely on the data we’re given from the state. We’re not experts on masks or vaccines. … The masks certainly didn’t turn out to be what was expected.”
The state planned to distribute nearly 4.5 million masks to schools last month, according to a planning document provided to the Globe. It’s not clear how many of the masks distributed were the less protective version labeled “non-medical,” or how many districts received them.
Masking isn’t the only covid fiasco the commonwealth has perpetrated against its teachers. Per the Globe:
Educators’ trust, already frayed, was further tested by another distribution debacle: some 3,000 expired COVID-19 test kits also were sent to some schools by the state. State education leaders first denied they sent expired tests, but later said the manufacturer had extended the dates they could be used, although there was nothing on the packaging to let educators know.
The confusion came as schools were already reeling: Statewide, schools saw a staggering 39,000 cases among students and 12,000 among staff this week, quadruple the number reported before the holiday break.
Teachers deserve better. Hell, any Massachusetts resident deserve better. Bernie Sanders continue to call to distribute N95 masks to everyone in the United States. How’s that effort going?
But teachers are especially important to me, the daughter of two public school teachers. My Dad’s two brothers, one aunt, a sister, and a cousin are all – or have been – public school teachers.
And let me take a moment here to tell you how dedicated my father was to the students at the Sussex County Vocational-Technical School. I’m the eldest of five children and I was usually lucky enough to have my own bedroom – not always the case for my other sisters. Yet every once in a while when I was in high school, my father took me aside and said, “Pal, I need you to do something for me.” What was that? Bunk in with one of my sisters for a bit, so that one of Dad’s students, who had nowhere else to go, would stay with us, at our home, until some crisis in that student’s life was resolved. I close my eyes and can see two of their faces – one was named Danny, the other Don. These visits sometimes extended for weeks. I never resented Dad’s asking me to give up my bedroom, as I trusted that if he asked me to do so, it was necessary. My parents set an example of helping those in need. They never had to explain what they were doing, but instead showed us how to behave.
I thought of my Dad when I read The Globe dispatch. I’m not sure many contemporary teachers would go so far as invite their students to move in with them – particularly in the midst of the pandemic. To be sure, Dad’s level of dedication was unusual even during the 1970s. But by merely showing up for work during these dangerous times – teachers are demonstrating courage and dedication. Especially as many schools are no doubt far from safe, lacking ventilation.
Massachusetts cannot even manage to execute a simple pledge to distribute high-quality masks to its teachers. The commonwealth has form in failing to protect its public employees. According to The Globe:
The struggles were not the first to befall the state in its efforts to protect public employees from COVID-19: In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, officials were embarrassed by a similar snafu after sending an unknown number of minimally protective masks to public safety workers.
Those 2020 mask deliveries — made after New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft sent a team plane to retrieve the scarce supplies from China — initially were cheered as a triumph. But questions followed about the state’s protocols for acquiring and testing protective equipment.
Nearly two years into the ongoing public health crisis, the same questions dogged the state again this week.
It appears the masks distributed last month to schools also may have been purchased in 2020. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency received two shipments of non-medical KN95 Protective masks from Fujian Pageone Garments Co., Ltd. — the Chinese manufacturer of the masks just sent to schools — by container ship on July 16 and July 29, 2020, according to import records.
No matter how sound the intention, execution os the pledge to distribute quality masks fell far short of what teachers deserve. Over to The Globe:
But it did not take long for questions to arise about the soft, white masks, sent in packages of five that bore the words “NON-MEDICAL” on the front.
Asked about the masks’ effectiveness during a press briefing at a Salem elementary school early Monday morning, Baker said the masks had been tested at MIT and found to filter out 85 percent of contaminants.
Soon the state was forced to backpedal, as the Globe reports:
On Wednesday, [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE0] sent schools a message citing “an update from MEMA today that some of the masks in the distribution, masks marked ‘non-medical,’ has not been tested at MIT as previously thought.”
Nevertheless, the state wrote, “all the masks that were distributed … remain effective,” a claim sharply criticized by educators who did their own research and found the questionable KN95 masks, manufactured by Fujian Pageone, were tested by the CDC and found less than 50 percent effective, and were removed in June 2020 from an FDA list of authorized models.
The teachers of Massachusetts weren’t fooled. Per the Globe:
As outrage grew, the Massachusetts Teachers Association on Wednesday called for an agency other than DESE to take over management of COVID-19 protections in schools. “The governor is putting public relations over public health,” the MTA’s president, Merrie Najimy, said. “They either knowingly lied or they demonstrated gross incompetence.”
Someone please explain to my how these things continue to happen? Why can’t Massachusetts – a state that prides itself on its world class educational institutions -get it together to make sure its elementary and secondary school teachers have proper masks, now two years into the pandemic?
Please, how is this so?
Which heads need to roll?
Won’t anyone take responsibility?
Here’s where the situation now stands:
A statement issued Thursday by DESE also did not explain how the less protective, non-medical masks — found to offer between 25 and 46 percent filter efficiency, compared with the 95 percent gold standard — made it into schools. Instead, it stressed the safety of classrooms and the importance of in-person learning.
How can teachers be asked to come to work under these conditions?
When the state can’t even bother get each and every teacher an effective face mask?