THEY’LL HAVE IT COVERED: From fashionable to functional, masks will be everywhere when school starts

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All manner of face coverings will be used when school gets underway Thursday in Greenfield-Central's buildings. Susan Bennett holds up one of the shields that teachers will be able to wear. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — A new item is at the top of everyone’s back-to-school shopping lists this week, and it has nothing to do with pencils or paper.

Face masks will be a mandatory necessity when schools resume across Hancock County starting Thursday, July 30.

Greenfield-Central will be the first school system to welcome students back, on Thursday. It will be the first time Hancock County students have stepped foot in the classroom since the coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended classes on March 12.

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When Mary Anne Siurek’s 3-year-old granddaughter Beatrice shows up for her first day of preschool at J.B. Stephens Elementary School, she’ll be doing so in a pink and purple gingham mask with her name embroidered on it.

Siurek, of Greenfield, has made about 500 masks for individuals since the pandemic first hit, but she wanted to make sure her granddaughter’s first-day-of-school mask was extra special.

“She loves pink and purple, and I wanted to make one that fit well around her curly blond hair,” said Siurek, who has been a steadfast seamstress for more than 20 years.

She’s made her granddaughter four masks so she can switch them out throughout the week. Embroidering her name or initials on them felt essential, she said.

“If you think about 20 kids in a 3-year-old’s classroom trying to figure out whose mask is whose, I thought having her name on it would help,” said Siurek, who has been using scrap material from her bountiful supply of fabrics to make masks since the spring.

While most masks are one-size-fits-all, Siurek knows that’s not always the case. She made much smaller masks for Beatrice, and larger ones for her college-bound grandson, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 300 pounds.

“It’s been fun adapting the masks to fit their needs,” said Siurek, who knows that young kids like her granddaughter are especially fond of colorful, whimsical designs.

As students try to make the most of the return to school, it will likely take no time at all until face masks become the latest fashion trend — with kids turning the mandatory masks into an admirable accessory.

Just as school supplies seem to vanish from store shelves in the days leading to the start of school, so are supplies of masks.

In researching this story, a reporter watched online as the quantity of an Adidas-brand mask — which came highly recommended on a national news site — clicked down to zero within seconds.

National retailers like Nordstrom and Old Navy are marketing masks specially designed for kids, with fun designs and colorful patterns. Other manufacturers specialize in masks that prevent eyeglasses from fogging up, while others produce transparent masks for the hearing impaired, who rely on lip reading to communicate.

Whether they serve a special purpose, or simply look cool, face coverings will have an undeniable presence in schools in the coming weeks.

Greenfield screen printer Charlie Vetters, who owns Organic Robot Designs, has been making Greenfield-Central masks in both kids’ and adult sizes, although not for the corporation. Team Image in Greenfield was tapped to make all the masks for Mt. Vernon students and staff.

The two local printers and Siurek are far from the only ones churning out masks geared toward the student set.

Soon after the pandemic hit, the phones at local schools began ringing off the hook with retailers offering custom masks emblazoned with a school logo.

“We have had dozens of vendors offer to make masks for us,” Greenfield-Central Superintendent Harold Olin said.

In June, the corporation chose one and ordered hundreds of cloth masks with a Greenfield-Central logo to be distributed to all on-site students and faculty members.

The state government also provided the school with paper and cloth masks to make available to students and visitors at no cost.

Eastern Hancock schools will also provide cloth and paper masks and face shields to students who need them, Superintendent David Pfaff said, but students are welcome to bring their own.

At Mt. Vernon schools, the corporation will provide masks and face shields for each student and staff member, charging students a nominal fee to cover costs. Parents can opt out of the fee and provide their student’s masks by contacting the school treasurer, said Maria Bond, the district’s community relations director.

The face masks — printed with an “MV” script emblem on one side and “Marauders” on the other — have adjustable straps that wrap around the head, allowing them to hang freely around the neck when not in use.

In Southern Hancock schools, all staff will receive a cloth mask with an “NP” logo on it and a clear face shield if they prefer to use that instead.

Students are expected to provide their own face covering or face shield.

The district will have a limited supply of alternate face coverings for students who may not be comfortable with wearing a mask, said Wes Anderson, the corporation’s director of school and community relations.

“Having a supply of masks for your child is a good idea,” Anderson said during an online forum held Tuesday afternoon, July 28.

According to the corporation’s Blueprint for Reentry, any face covering brought from home must comply with the district’s policy on student dress and grooming. Any face covering that is offensive, insensitive or inappropriate will be confiscated, and the student will be given a mask to replace it.

The corporation has acquired over 40,000 masks and face coverings of various types, said Anderson, most of which are paper and disposable. “We also do have limited supplies of cloth masks and face shields to provide to students who need one,” he said.

Staff and students in grades 3 and up will be required to wear the masks all day, with exceptions for eating lunch. For students in preschool through second grade, face masks will be required in situations including but not limited to any situation where close contact may occur, or social distancing is not possible.

They’re also required on school buses, and when students walk to various parts of the building as a group.

At Mt. Vernon schools, masks will be required to be worn at all times except under the direction of a staff person when students can be spaced 3 to 6 feet apart, Bond said.

Students and staff are expected to have masks with them at all times.

At Greenfield-Central schools, Olin said, students will be required to wear masks or similar face coverings when they ride a bus or “anytime in school when social distancing cannot be maintained…with exceptions for strenuous activities and times when students are eating and drinking.”

Olin doesn’t anticipate having a problem enforcing the rules.

“We have adult supervision throughout our schools. A vast majority of the time in the school day is spent in the classroom setting, where we have appropriate student-to-teacher ratios,” he said.

Anderson said enforcing the mask rules will require a concerted effort by administrators and staff. “Our goal isn’t to be punitive or use discipline. We want to encourage our students to do this for the health of their classmates and teachers,” he said.