By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
After a harrowing process of testing, trial, and innovation, the Bellevue School District (BSD) Special Education Department has accepted a large order of see-through masks and other specialized equipment from local Chinese volunteers and other community groups.
See-through masks have multiple purposes. The BSD needed them for educators teaching students with a variety of special needs. Fitted with a removable plastic shield, the masks are primarily designed so that hearing-impaired students can still read lips.
“Students and employees who are hard of hearing often need to read lips to understand what is being said to them,” said Carrie Lang, Director of Special Education, Health Services, for the BSD.
But see-through masks also allow learning to proceed for students who need to copy their teachers’ mouths as they learn to form sounds correctly.
“When a student receives speech and communication services from a speech language pathologist to support articulation and communication goals, they need to be able to see the shape of the lips and movement of the mouth to communicate more clearly,” said Lang.
In other cases, the see-through masks are necessary for students to make non-verbal connections with their teachers.
“For some students who receive special education services, being able to see the face of the educator helps the student to understand emotion and intention,” she said.
The need for see-through masks — or any specialized masks, for that matter — is a reminder that some groups could be neglected during the rush for personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
For instance, most children’s masks are often designed for older children and will not necessarily fit the faces of children with smaller faces, such as those in pre-K, according to Lily Yin, a member of the BSD PTSA and one of the volunteers leading the mask-making efforts.
Her revelation came after she worked with Lang to develop the see-through masks. Yin learned that, in addition to the see-through masks, the BSD still needed 4,000 children’s masks, 3,000 facial shields, and 10,000 ear savers. Ear savers cover the ears so that a mask can be worn for a long period without pain.
Working with a group of volunteers, Yin and her counterparts contacted a factory in Taiwan that makes children’s masks, since it is no longer possible to order from factories in China, she said. The factory, learning the order was for children in the United States, immediately agreed to offer a discount of 50%. But after that, the challenges mounted.
First, there was fundraising. She contacted one of the leading local Chinese relief organizations, the Huazhong University of Science and Technology Alumni Association of Seattle, which agreed to pay for the masks.
But the challenges followed one after another. The masks didn’t fit younger kids.
So Yin arranged for them to add adjustable straps.
Material with cartoons that kids wanted was too expensive. It was copyrighted by Disney. So she found material in Taiwan with Taiwanese cartoons.
For the see-through masks, the first round of plastic shields scratched easily, so Yin ended up choosing the kind of plastic used to make slides.
Finally, the plastic shields slipped out of the masks, so Yin added velcro.
Lang tested these out with a number of her teachers. They were all satisfied.
Delighted, actually. But the changes presented Yin with a new hurdle.
When she had made plain cotton masks before, at first it had taken her and her fellow volunteers roughly one hour to make a single mask. They had whittled it down, with practice, to less than 30 minutes per mask.
The new masks, with the plastic shields, required them to spend anywhere from three to four hours on a single mask. That has not deterred her.
She has continued her fundraising efforts, this time approaching a leading Chinese educational nonprofit, Little Masters, which agreed to pay for the face shields.
Now she’s moving on to helping the BSD get the ear savers they need. If anything, she said, the pandemic has encouraged the Chinese community to look outward and broaden its social activism.
“We Chinese, we help each other a lot, but we don’t do enough to help others, but doing these masks is something,” she said.
Lang said the Chinese and other communities on the Eastside have been helping all along.
“Bellevue is such a diverse community, it is encouraging to see how different groups can come together to support all of our students in times of need,” she said.
“I really believe that working together like this, we can meet the vision of the Bellevue School District, ‘To affirm and inspire each and every student to learn and thrive as creators of their future world!’”
Yin agrees and adds that the pandemic has made such a mission even more vital.
“This is common sense,” she said. “This pandemic is not an individual thing, it threatens all of us. If you don’t stand up at this time, for everyone around you, I feel that, then there’s no hope for the world.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.