Mass. schools cope with COVID disruptions, including 'non-medical' use masks

Download Audio
A sign reminding students to wear face masks and follow a set directional pattern are seen in the stairway of a Boston high school in February 2021. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A sign reminding students to wear face masks and follow a set directional pattern are seen in the stairway of a Boston high school in February 2021. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

WBUR's education reporter Max Larkin joined Radio Boston, along with Almi Abeyta, superintendent of Chelsea Public Schools, and Andrea Schwamb, assistant superintendent of Wareham Public Schools, to discuss how the rampant spread of omicron has disrupted school systems returning after the holiday break. To hear their conversation, click the audio atop this post.

Health experts say school districts should be wary of some of the masks provided by the state to protect teachers, students and staff from the coronavirus’ highly transmissible omicron variant. Some of the six million masks the state distributed for use in schools don’t come close to filtering out 95% of particles.

Schools are now open across Massachusetts, trying to meet the state’s in-person learning requirements despite widespread staff shortages: hundreds — in some cases, even more than a thousand — school workers called out in districts across the state. And some educators and district officials say concerns around the masks, delays in testing, and other supply issues on the state’s watch have made their task more complicated.

As most schools reopened Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said the state had secured KN95 masks that had been tested by researchers at MIT and judged to be 85% effective.

But in a message sent to superintendents early Wednesday morning, state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley acknowledged that isn’t universally true. While some of the masks — manufactured in China by Fujian Pageone Garments Co. — do meet the CDC standard for high-quality masks, others do not. Teachers and parents who received masks can tell the difference by checking the bags they came in, or the cards that accompanied them: the less-effective masks are labeled for “non-medical” use.

A June 2020 assessment by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that the “non-medical” Fujiian masks were between 25% and 45% effective.

So while the masks are labeled "KN95," Jon Levy — a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health — said that's misleading. “I’d be really concerned about relying on them as a strong line of defense," he said. "They’re not a whole lot better than cloth masks.”

DESE’s letter Wednesday morning came after days of educators and residents using social media to share images of the masks with that “non-medical” label.

The letter didn’t apologize for the mix-up, adding that the masks — regardless of their label — “remain effective” and that “the use of the KN95 masks is voluntary, and staff should be aware that their choice of masks is ultimately a personal decision.”

Julie Hackett, the superintendent of the Lexington Public Schools, said the district received less than half of its initial state allotment of the masks due to lack of supply on Dec. 30, then discovered later that all 21 cases were labeled as "non-medical."

Hackett's team had opted to keep schools closed on Monday to come out of the break without "mayhem": rapid tests that the state ordered for staff ended up arriving days late, leaving little time for distribution.

“For me, if we’re going to do something like this, we should do it right,” Hackett said earlier this week, adding that — two years into the pandemic — people have lost patience with “safety theater.”

Patricia Kinsella, interim superintendent of the Pioneer Valley Regional School District, said she oversaw the distribution of 6,000 state-provided masks in her district in the past week — and she too said “all of the cases I have seen have said ‘non-medical.’ ”

Kinsella was frustrated at having inadvertently given teachers and students a false sense of security.

“District leaders distributed these to staff and students, believing that we could trust in the information provided to us," she said. "What’s disappointing about the state’s response thus far is that it seems that the state is pivoting to a shift of responsibility onto the individual."

“We all make mistakes — all of us. What’s important is that we repair our relationships when we discover that we’ve made an error,” Kinsella added. “It would be great if the state went and bought high-quality N95s, or KN95s, and distributed those. I would even take, at this point, if they could help us with contract pricing.”

B.U.'s Levy noted that high-quality masks are just one part of a comprehensive COVID-containment strategy, along with vaccinations, testing and quarantine. But he argued they are a meaningful force multiplier during the current omicron-driven surge.

“If you have everyone wearing high-quality masks, you have 100 times the protection versus everyone wearing cloth masks,” Levy said. “So it really ups our game at a time when — the data show — we really need to up our game.”

State officials said they aren’t yet sure what percentage of the masks distributed carry that label, or how the confusion occurred. But they are making an effort to fix the situation: the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency will try to secure highly-rated masks for districts that missed out in the first distribution.

This article was originally published on January 05, 2022.

This segment aired on January 5, 2022.

Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.


Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Headshot of Jack Mitchell

Jack Mitchell Associate Producer
Jack Mitchell was an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom. He works across a wide spectrum of departments and shows — from the newscast unit, to, to Radio Boston.



More from Radio Boston

Listen Live