Cambridge Public Schools students walk into their school Thursday, some in cloth masks deemed less safe than flat surgical masks. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A campaign to help Cambridge Public Schools students, families and staff get high-quality masks has ordered 20,000 masks in its first bulk purchase this month, including some that are being donated, organizers said last week. “It was a huge success,” said Jill Crittenden, an MIT neuroscientist and public schools parent who also sits on the district’s health and safety Covid-19 advisory committee.

Yet the volunteer effort, which started in January, may have unsettled school officials, who bought 300,000 surgical-type masks last year to give out free to students and staff after laboratory tests found they were 90 percent to 95 percent successful at blocking aerosol particles that can transmit Covid. In comparison, the bulk ordering campaign’s masks are 95 percent effective and come in several different sizes.

When organizers last week asked school liaisons at individual schools to send information about the bulk ordering program to parents of children at the schools, interim superintendent Victoria Greer ordered principals not to approve the request. Asked about Greer’s action, school district spokesperson Lyndsay Pinkus Brown said: “Superintendent Greer asked our staff to focus on supporting the successful launch of the school year. Given the large supply of CPS-provided, independently-tested masks, distribution of the cambridgemasks.org materials was not a priority for the first week of school.” cambridgemasks.org is the website of the bulk purchasing campaign.

Crittenden and Amanda Beatty, another leader of the volunteer effort, said they met with Greer on Wednesday. The superintendent “and her team are thinking about how to move forward,” Beatty said.

“I think they have everyone’s best interest in mind. This isn’t about power or recognition – it’s really trying to do what’s best for their staff and students,” Beatty said. Crittenden added that Greer “appears to be action and health-focused,” in contrast to many other people “who become paralyzed by bureaucracy and policy issues.”

Crittenden and Beatty earlier praised school officials for allowing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test the masks the district was considering buying. Crittenden also said that in tests, the flat surgical masks were better than “very good cloth masks” at blocking particles, even when they did not fit perfectly.

The volunteers are offering KF94 masks on their website, cambridgemasks.org. These Korean-made masks block 95 percent of particles and can be bought in different sizes, improving fit. “People say, ‘Is this better than surgical masks? We say yes if they fit,’” Crittenden said.

“Our No. 1 objective is to get masks into the hands of students and staff. We don’t want to do anything that’s accusatory with the school system,” Beatty said.

Ordering in bulk

By ordering in bulk, the campaign can give parents and staff lower prices and buyers can order a small number of masks. Buyers can also try out different types and sizes. Besides getting paid orders, the volunteers received enough donated money for 6,000 free masks and have been promised another 1,000 masks given by one of the suppliers, KollectUSA, Crittenden said.

The group is also now accepting orders from people not affiliated with the schools, including buyers outside Cambridge. Non-affiliates can’t get free masks.

One volunteer also wrote instructions for creating an ordering webpage similar to the group’s site, so other communities could launch a similar mask bulk-buying effort, Crittenden said.

City’s efforts

The masks bought by the school district have been distributed to schools. The Covid-19 information page on the district’s website includes a link to a flyer called “Masks Keep You Healthy” that says that “all CPS-provided masks achieve excellent filtration: independent testing found them to be at 90-95%.”

“Masks are available from the school for all CPS employees and students,” the flyer says. It does not include specific instructions on how to get them from the school.

The flyer recommends that people buying masks look for “‘high filtration’ masks” such as KN95, KF94 or “flat, medical-style masks that have been quality-tested.” It also recommends masks rated by the standards-setting organization the American Society for Testing and Materials.

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Group organizes bulk buying of Covid masks aimed at Cambridge Public Schools families
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