How a DC teacher and community group are working to provide students, educators with better masks

Members of Sunset Movement DC distribute N95 masks to D.C. school workers. (Courtesy Sunset Movement)

When D.C. teacher Kathy Thorne learned another educator at Marie Reed Elementary School had launched a fundraising campaign to provide higher quality masks to his students, she considered ways to copy the idea.

Many of her students were isolated or quarantined within the first four weeks of the school year, Thorne said, which gave her a front-row seat to how quickly the coronavirus could spread. She wanted to do more for her students.

So, with snow keeping schools closed the week after winter break, Thorne planned how to gather kits containing KN95 masks and thermometers for her students. She created a fundraiser on DonorsChoose, which was fully-funded in three days.

Thorne joins a growing list of teachers and organizations working to help provide students and school staff with quality masks and testing to ensure their safety during in-person learning.

In the first weeks of 2022, D.C. parents, educators and community groups have worked to improve safety conditions for everyone working in or attending school. The D.C. Council, for its part, has crafted laws requiring schools to increase testing and inform parents of positive cases in a timely manner. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee have increased availability of rapid tests for younger students.

Still, Thorne said, more can be done, even as coronavirus metrics improve.

“I was a little concerned for the families, really, who don’t have the resources to get the proper materials, like proper masks, don’t have thermometers in their homes, who don’t really have the resources that they would need to really be proactive instead of reactive,” Thorne said.

Thorne created the fundraising effort in early January, at a time DonorsChoose was matching donations. She wrote why she felt it was important for students to have higher quality masks after the emergence of a more contagious variant.

At a town hall for the school community, Ferebee, the chancellor, said the school system provides students with cloth masks, but parents and council members have called for higher quality masks to be distributed.

In addition to the masks and thermometers with instructions, Thorne said, the kits might also include gloves. Some families live in tight spaces, she said, which might make isolation or quarantine difficult.

Parents have provided her with rapid test kits, so that students exhibiting symptoms or who may have been exposed could be sent home with a test in their backpack.

“We don’t have all of the resources available to us,” Thorne said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of not being afforded. We just don’t have it available to us to ensure that we are protecting our students the best way that we can. … We do want the kids in school, we just don’t want one of them to get sick.”

The group Sunset Movement DC, which its leadership describes as a group of young people unified by the struggle against the climate crisis and other challenges, similarly noticed the lack of resources allocated to school workers. D.C. has provided KN95 masks to teachers, but is issuing each teacher one per week.

Group leadership started brainstorming ways to help in early January and contacted the Washington Teachers’ Union to discuss logistics of getting N95 masks in schools. A Virginia company that had a surplus offered to donate the masks.

“There wasn’t a point in time in the pandemic before [the omicron surge] where I knew so many sick people,” said Sam Delgado, a member of the collective. “And these are people who are pretty cautious. For teachers, they don’t have that luxury of getting to not go out there and expose themselves, because they had to go back to schools.”

Sunset Movement DC is still working the distribute the high quality masks, and has focused on school personnel in Wards 5, 7 and 8. Librarians, custodial staff, bus drivers and other school works are eligible to receive the masks. Each worker is given three N95s, and they come with cleaning and storage instructions, so the masks can be reused.

“We know that kids are not vaccinated, a lot of them are not eligible for vaccination,” said Eskedar Girmash, another group member. “This obviously puts teachers and school staff at great risk, as they’re in contact with them daily.”

Éilís Weller, also with Sunset Movement DC, said the group’s effort also aimed to draw awareness to the way the pandemic has impacted communities differently.

“We are leaving our most vulnerable community members to the worst situations with the pandemic; we have already,” Eilis said. “So many communities have been impacted, especially disproportionately.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up