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Across the region’s schools, a wildly varied treatment of masks

Jasmine Marshall hands a face mask to a student outside of Harriet Tubman Elementary School in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2022. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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Hannah Donart, a mother of two in Maryland, was glad her school system, in Montgomery County, planned to hand out KN95 masks for students and staff — but then frustrated by what her 7- and 10-year-olds brought home: a mask in a plastic sandwich bag, with no label or packaging.

“I can’t trust them blindly, not with my children’s health,” said Donart, not wanting to chance that the items were less effective than what she already had.

As the omicron variant surges, masking at school is a flash point in the D.C. region. It’s not just that the newly inaugurated governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin (R), has barred school systems from requiring face coverings. It’s also that systems in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia are handing out KN95s for the first time — or planning to — with mixed results.

Some parents and teachers are questioning the type of KN95s, while others are asking why supplies are limited. Suzie Djidjoli, a speech-language pathologist in Montgomery County, was disappointed not to be able to identify the manufacturer or filtration details about the mask she received, but she also worried about Virginia’s example. “Will we be next?” she found herself thinking.

In Maryland, school mask requirements were recently revised to allow school systems to make their own decisions about masking when vaccination rates reach 80 percent or when transmission rates are low-to-moderate for 14 days as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An individual school could become mask-optional if the vaccination rate among students and staff is 80 percent or higher.

In D.C., the masks are going to teachers and staff, but not students. Maya Baum, who teaches 22 fourth graders, has students wearing cloth, surgical, and KN95 masks. It can be tough to ensure social distancing, she said. She planned to spend the weekend fundraising to outfit them with high-quality masks. “I’m really not interested in having to be virtual or having any of my students or their family members get covid,” Baum said.

CDC says N95 masks offer far better protection than cloth masks against omicron variant

KN95s can offer much more protection than cloth masks. According to the CDC, loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection. Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer more protection, while well-fitting respirators, including N95s, that are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provide the highest level of protection.

But the CDC has warned that not all KN95s are the same. About 60 percent of KN95s evaluated by NIOSH did not meet requirements they were intended to meet.

Research shows better masks make a difference, particularly if everyone wears them, said Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist and infectious-disease transmission modeler at University of Maryland School of Medicine. Virginia’s decision, she said, is ill-timed amid the omicron surge.

The two largest Maryland school districts, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, are giving KN95s to students and staff.

Prince George’s school system officials said the masks are an extra layer of protection and are in line with recent CDC recommendations for KN95s and well-fitted masks. They have enough KN95s to supply a mask per student every other week through the end of February.

Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the teachers union, said one mask a week is “definitely not enough” — and that distribution has not been uniform across the county. “For staff, they should just reimburse us for buying our own,” she said.

Montgomery officials said more than a million KN95 masks have been procured. Most students have received eight to 10 weeks of masks, and most staff five to six weeks. But distributor shipping delays have been an issue, too. Some teachers and parents have received masks in packaging that identifies their source and other details, and some have not.

How often can you safely reuse your KN95 or N95 mask?

David Mathison, a father of three in Bethesda who works as a pediatric emergency physician, said the masks may be a good step — if schools enforce mask use and if other prevention strategies come with them, including testing, better physical spacing and lunchtime safeguards like eating outdoors. “It’s a multifactorial approach,” he said.

For parents in Virginia, this week may say a lot about what’s to come. Youngkin’s order, to take effect Jan. 24, has already inspired at least one parent lawsuit meant to reverse it, as well as vows of defiance from school districts in more liberal, northern sectors of the state. Conversely, school districts in conservative, rural areas moved to follow the mask-optional order. Legal experts say the conflict will inevitably be decided by the courts.

In Northern Virginia last week, major school districts — including those in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Alexandria — quickly promised to keep requiring masking in schools. Arlington and Alexandria recently distributed KN95 masks to students and staff, while in Loudoun staff can request N95 masks through the district’s environmental health and safety office.

What will happen if students arrive maskless is largely unclear. Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun, said children without face coverings will be asked to don masks; schools will provide them if needed. Should a student continue to refuse, Byard said, school officials will contact the parent or guardian to discuss the issue.

“If noncompliance is related to medical or financial need,” Byard said Friday, “the school-based team will develop a plan of action to support the student’s compliance with the requirement.”

Similarly, the Fairfax superintendent said Friday that students who come without masks will be in violation of the district’s dress code.

The governor has been tight-lipped about what he will do to ensure his order takes effect Monday. His spokeswoman, Macaulay Porter, did not directly answer a question Friday asking how Youngkin will deal with school districts that keep requiring masking next week, although she previously said the governor may pull funding from districts that flout the order.

Fairfax County parent Talya Schultz said she is considering keeping her third-grader and fourth-grader home for a while if dozens of their peers show up unmasked. Schultz said she already pulls her kids out of school during lunchtime for safety — having them eat in her car — because Fairfax students eat indoors and unmasked in what she called close proximity.

Schultz also purchased high-quality masks for her children, with one of them wearing a N95 mask and the other a KF94 mask — precautions that she said protect her 3-year-old, still too young to be vaccinated.

Other parents, though, are heralding the decision. One website launched last week calls Jan. 24 “Mask Off Monday,” offering parents step-by-step instructions for alerting school districts their children will show up mask-free.

In Alexandria, parent Anthony Smith is pleased with Youngkin’s order — and upset his children’s school district is not complying. “Our school systems cannot continue to run roughshod over parents, students and the law,” he said.

Teachers are similarly divided. Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents about 4,000 employees in the school district, said she was horrified by Youngkin’s order.

“This created panic, literal panic, between staff who have their own kids at home under five and staff who they themselves are still considered at risk,” Adams said. “The timing was just terrible.”

But another teacher in Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid backlash from peers, said she supports Youngkin’s order because masking is not working as it should anyway. “The vast majority of elementary-schoolers that I’ve witnessed are wearing ineffective masks, wet or cloth or thin,” she said. “For high-schoolers, the majority of them choose to wear them ineffectively.”

In D.C., educators have been pushing for KN95 masks to be provided to every student, rather than just teachers and staff. But in a weekly call with D.C. Council members and the Bowser administration Friday, Chris Rodriguez — director of D.C.'s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency — said the school system “does not have a supply chain solution to provide every student with KN95 masks.”

KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network — provides KN95 masks to teachers and contractors. But labor groups have pushed the city to provide more masks at schools.

The Washington Teachers Union has been vocal about the push. D.C. Caucus of Rank & File Educators — an advocacy group for D.C. teachers — has used a “week of action” to push on social media for the distribution of masks to every student, along with other requests.

Laura Fuchs, the group’s chair, said many are worried about the low rate of vaccination among students. City data shows roughly 54 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 51 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have received both shots. The rate for children 5 to 11 is lower.

“If the student doesn’t want the mask — that’s one thing,” said Fuchs, who teaches social studies at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington. “But at least offering it to students, we just think, is the right thing to do.”

At her school, each staffer can pick up a KN95 mask twice a week. But the masks aren’t clearly labeled with the name of the manufacturer, Fuchs said, so she sticks to high-quality masks she bought on her own. She trusts them more.