Budget & Finance

Schools Are Scrambling to Find Effective and Affordable Masks

By Mark Lieberman — January 21, 2022 9 min read
Illustration of a woman with 6 mask options all around her and several question marks and coronavirus pathogens floating around her.
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Even as debate roils across the country over whether masks should be mandated in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many district leaders find purchasing and providing masks for staff and students equally vexing.

The politics of masking aside, they face a confusing array of online mask vendors, reports of counterfeit or dubiously effective masks, fluctuating prices, out-of-stock notices, and shipping delays. Those are all on top of tough decisions about how much money to invest in masks, and how widely to provide them to staff or students.

High-quality, school-issued masks are among the items students and staff have demanded during protests over in-person learning in Denver, Seattle, Edmonds, Wash., Round Rock, Texas, and Oakland, Calif. They see mandatory masking as essential to keep people safe.

The emergence of the omicron variant also has led many public health experts to urge more widespread use of N95 respirators—face coverings certified for particle filtration in health care settings—or KN95 masks, which are similar to N95s but are manufactured in China and, in some cases, don’t meet standards of filtration as high as N95 respirators.

Some districts are having a harder time than others securing those masks at reasonable prices, or understanding the logistical trade-offs when they might not fit or be comfortable for people wearing them.

Jake Alverson, director of procurement for the 20,000-student Green Bay district in Wisconsin, said at least two districts have recently reached out to him to ask if he can spare any high-quality medical masks. One district was willing to pay for 3,000 KN95 masks, but Alverson only had 2,900 in stock and didn’t want to part with more than 1,000.

“It’s pretty tough out there right now,” Alverson said.

Alverson has spent much of the last two years strategizing mask purchases.

At first, three-ply disposable masks were available in small quantities for 70 cents apiece. That cost proved unsustainable for the one-time use supplies, so Alverson switched to reusable cloth masks, which cost $3 each.

Then, roughly eight months ago, the cost of disposable masks plummeted to between 4 cents and 10 cents each. Alverson routinely ordered 100,000 every six weeks or so. Students and staff already had cloth masks, but the district’s bus drivers didn’t, and having reserves in case people forgot their cloth masks at home couldn’t hurt.

The recent surge of COVID cases prompted another conversation with the superintendent. Alverson decided it would be best to rush-order 1 million disposable surgical masks while prices remain competitive.

That order, for $55,000, went out earlier this month—just in time for the emerging consensus among scientists that KN95 and N95 masks are crucial to curbing the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Alverson is conflicted. The district’s health advisers have said providing KN95 and N95 masks will be most effective if each wearer undergoes a fit check to ensure the mask is snug against their unique face shape. That process could be prohibitively time-consuming—assuming the district can even acquire enough of those high-quality masks, which currently cost $1 to $2 each and are selling fast, he said.

“If we had the money to buy N95 and KN95 masks, we’d likely do it,” Alverson said. “But then how would we get 20,000 students and 3,000 staff members all fit-tested for those masks?”

The constantly shifting guidance and market complexities since March 2020 haven’t fazed Alverson as much as people assume—he’s been drawing on his two decades of experience in the Air Force, including four years deployed in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Cyprus.

“When you’re in those locations in a battle posture, requirements are changing all the time. You’ll have a commander say, ‘You need to do this,’ then change course,” Alverson said. “My hair’s never really felt like it was on fire.”

Many other school district leaders likely can’t say the same as they navigate the evolution of the virus and the tools necessary to fight it.

A push for higher-quality masks creates logistical headaches

Public health experts have long said KN95 and N95 masks provide the most robust protection against COVID-19. Until recently, though, most public health entities stuck to recommending that people wear cloth masks, which are more comfortable and easier to attain than N95 or KN95 masks.

But on Jan. 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance, following new evidence that the omicron variant can more easily penetrate lower-quality masks than previous variants.

“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the guidance now reads.

The federal government hasn’t sent masks directly to schools since a shipment of cloth masks in fall 2020, before the vaccine rollout and the delta and omicron variants. It’s never sent KN95 or N95 masks to schools.

Some state governments, like in California, Connecticut and Delaware, have recently announced plans to send high-quality masks to schools. Wisconsin, where Alverson works, now allows schools to request N95 masks from the state’s stockpile that was previously reserved for health care workers.

Some districts have taken advantage of emergency funding from federal and state sources to fund the purchase of masks. Prices vary considerably: The Kalamazoo district in Michigan recently spent $35,880 in federal relief funds for 200,000 surgical masks—or 14 cents per mask, quite a bit more than what Green Bay recently paid. The San Antonio district just got 250,000 KN95 masks for 30 cents each, far cheaper than what Alverson was seeing in his area.

Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside school district in Texas, wanted to bulk up the district’s supply of N95 or KN95 masks for staff. He consulted with four vendors the district has been using for surgical masks throughout the pandemic, hoping to locate the best deal among the four. But none had the slightly cheaper KN95 masks available, and three vendors had no N95 masks in stock either.

Woods ended up getting 100,000 masks from the fourth vendor, for $1 apiece—more than six times the cost of the surgical masks the district has been buying in bulk throughout the pandemic.

“It may get us through this surge of cases but it won’t get us through the next one,” he said.

Some staff and students are expected to provide their own masks

In some places, school employees and families are expected to provide their own masks. Higher-quality masks are costly and out of reach for many families, and masks for children are particularly hard to come by right now because of surging demand.

The Biden administration also has announced that it will provide 400 million free N95 masks to pharmacies in the next few weeks. It’s not clear if child-sized masks will be distributed, and acquiring the free masks will require families to do more legwork than if they received them in the mail or if their local school handed them out.

U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., on Jan. 19 sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration to prioritize manufacturing and distributing N95 masks suitable for young children.

Patricia Kinsella, interim superintendent of the 650-student Pioneer Valley district in rural Northfield, Mass., said families have reacted to the district’s mask mandates with alarm, but not because they don’t want students to wear masks.

“I get anxious and angry emails from families saying, ‘Where am I supposed to get that?’” Kinsella said. “I think, gosh, you shouldn’t be alone in trying to find that. We have [federal emergency relief] funding, let’s provision you with that.”

090221 Stimulus Masks AP BS
Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP

Cody Norton, a 3rd-grade teacher at Marie Reed Elementary School in the District of Columbia, recently raised $589 on the online platform DonorsChoose to provide a 10-pack of KN95 masks to each of his 35 students. Any leftover money will go toward masks for other students in the school, and he’s prepared to run another donation drive once those masks run out.

“A lot of my families are living at or below the poverty line. Access to high-quality masks is a challenge,” he said. “I felt like it was an easy thing that I could do. I have never really been one to wait on government bureaucracy to do what should have been done months or years ago.”

Up until now, his school has only had a large enough supply of masks to offer them to students who arrive at school without one. More recently, teachers can pick up one KN95 mask a day from the front office, he said.

Some districts, like the West Contra Costa district in California and the Montgomery County schools in Maryland, are moving to require staff to wear KN95 or N95 masks and provide them on a regular basis.
Others are taking a more flexible approach to the type of masks staff are required to wear.

Woods, the Northside superintendent, said the vendor had more N95 masks available than he ended up purchasing. He’s waiting to see whether teachers find the masks comfortable enough to wear throughout the day before requiring them.

“What I told our staff was, let’s get 100,000 out to campuses, offer them to staff and see what the uptake is,” Woods said. “If folks are really wearing them all day long, we’ll keep searching for more.”

School districts have been flocking to the nonprofit Project N95 for advice on which masks to buy and whether masks they bought earlier in the pandemic are still safe to use, said Anne Miller, the organization’s executive director.

She’s urging districts to prioritize N95 masks over everything else. The supply of those, for adults at least, isn’t as constrained as it was earlier in the pandemic. KN95 masks can also be effective, but the process for certifying them isn’t as rigorous.

“If you’re paying 30 cents for a KN95, you can do better with an N95,” Miller said.

Districts find the mask markets tricky to navigate

Chaos can ensue even when governments try to step in. School district leaders in Massachusetts were left frustrated this month after the state department of education sent hundreds of thousands of masks to school districts that turned out to be far less effective than promised. Some schools in Connecticut and New York appear to have also received masks that have since been recalled for not meeting filtration standards.

Kinsella, the Northfield superintendent, spent much of last week scouring online mask vendors and even conducting fit tests of mask samples with the school nurse to ensure the purchased items work for the children who will be wearing them.

I have never really been one to wait on government bureaucracy to do what should have been done months or years ago.

“I’m organized. And I’m spending hours and hours on this. Multiply that by several hundred districts in the state. That’s a massive opportunity cost and inefficiency,” she said.

Districts are finding other creative ways as well to help out in the absence of systemic solutions. In Northfield, Kinsella is enlisting high school students to put together mask kits in paper bags to distribute to families.

Alverson, in Green Bay, shared contact information for the mask vendor he’s been using with a small neighboring district that doesn’t have as much purchasing power as his. That district can reach out to Alverson’s vendor and ask for masks at the price Green Bay was getting, rather than the price the company sets for the size of the order.

“I don’t know if they’ll be able to honor that same price,” Alverson said. “At least they go in there with the same tools.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Mad Scramble for Masks

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