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.
In Boston, all 230,000 masks schools received were the non-medical version, a spokesman said. Other districts from Cape Cod to the Vermont border also reported receiving the non-medical masks.
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.
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.
The recent distribution was criticized from the start as needlessly last-minute. But districts also were grateful for the help as they prepared for an influx of infected and contagious children and staff after Christmas break, as the Omicron variant swept the state.
Just before Christmas, Massachusetts state education officials sent a message to superintendents and charter school leaders across the state.
“Great news! The Commissioner is pleased to announce that DESE has worked with Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to provide districts with KN-95 Fujian Disposable Ear loop Protective Face Masks adult sizes at no cost to school districts,” read the email sent Dec. 23.
Each district would receive 30 masks per staff member, according to the message.
“It was designed to be a six-week supply … to get us through this period of the surge,” said Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar.
The state planned to drop supplies at eight centralized distribution sites around the state, and it was up to districts to get them from there. Billerica’s 29,000 masks were delivered to Tewksbury.
“We appreciated the effort,” said Piwowar, who said it was the only time the state had provided “high-quality” masks to his district for educators. In the past, it’s been up to districts to buy masks on their own, usually with federal relief money.
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.
On Wednesday, DESE 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.
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.”
School leaders at the Pioneer Valley Regional School District, on the border with Vermont, picked up 6,000 masks last month in Holyoke. All of them were marked “non-medical.”
“I’m not pulling the masks back, but we’re doing everything we can to get better ones into the district,” said interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella.
New Bedford received 75,000 masks, most if not all of which were labeled “non-medical,” according to Superintendent Thomas Anderson. “Our team has been proactive and we stocked our own inventory of KN95 masks throughout the past year,” he added.
For Piwowar, in Billerica, the masks provided by the state are still “better than the cloth masks that most people are using.”
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.
The state, according to Scott, is “looking into providing more masks that are higher quality.”
In the meantime, teachers say they are still waiting for answers, and accountability.
“Our state leadership pointed fingers at districts and schools and educators first, rather than taking the time to investigate its own actions,” Boston teacher Neema Avashia wrote in an essay published Friday by WBUR. “In both cases, rather than take responsibility, leadership sought to place blame.”