Concerned about the reliability of the global supply chain and seeing a need in their community, two township parents took it upon themselves to ensure every student in the Hamilton Township School District has at least one reusable, cloth mask.

Mask Up HTSD was started by Sarah Valerio and Lisa Schulz, and the duo have embarked on the big job of collecting masks for the school district’s nearly 12,000 students. The school district has asked every student to bring two masks with them each day—one to wear and a spare one just in case—once in-person instruction resumes. Hamilton schools will start the year remotely.

The Mask Up HTSD collection drive seeks nearly 12,000 masks, enough for every student in Hamilton.

Valerio and Schulz hatched the idea for Mask Up HTSD after sharing concerns that some children might not have one mask, let alone two. HTSD has ordered a supply of disposal masks, but the pair was skeptical that schools would be able to keep up with providing disposal masks to children every day. Both have served on district pandemic planning committees this summer, and knew the realities and demands that opening during a pandemic placed on the district and individual schools.

Valerio, who is president of the Greenwood Elementary School PTA, spoke with Greenwood principal Nicole Dickens-Simon about what the school’s greatest needs were for the new school year. The answer: masks.

Principals around the district echoed that answer—they needed enough masks to ensure every student would have one. 

So, Schulz and Valerio jumped into action, forming Mask Up HTSD. They are asking the community to donate new, clean, reusable cloth masks in child and adult sizes. There are currently five drop-off locations: outside of Wilson Elementary School, Nottingham High School and Steinert High School, at the Hamilton Township Free Public Library and at 33 Barber Shop on Route 33 in Hamilton Square. Each mask should be put in a Ziploc bag with the mask’s size labeled on the bag in marker. 

The mask drive will be ongoing, lasting as long as the need for masks exists.

In its first month, Mask Up HTSD had a quick start. It took a huge jump toward its goal Aug. 26 after Mike Simone, who works for UnitedHealthcare and has a child in Steinert High School, helped donate 3,000 masks. But they’ve found support throughout Hamilton.

“It’s really just been this organic collaborative effort,” Valerio said. “It makes me feel really good, actually, because it’s something tangible that we can do right now, when it feels like a lot of things are outside of our control.”

The Hamilton Board of Education’s decision to start the school year remotely, with a goal of commencing hybrid instruction in October, has bought Mask Up HTSD a few extra weeks to ensure schools have the masks they need on the first day of school. Valerio said they plan on distributing masks to schools based on the sizes they receive—adult masks would be too large for elementary school children, for example—as well as the projected hybrid enrollments at each school. They’ve set up a shared spreadsheet so those involved can track the inventory of masks at the schools, as well as new donations that need to be distributed.

There are a lot of logistics, and both Valerio and Schulz are thankful for the extra time.

“To be honest, as far as the mask drive goes, I think starting in October is wonderful,” said Schulz, who has four children attending district schools. “We were just gifted extra time to accumulate what we need. The reality is that no matter when we go back, the masks will be part of the school day.”

The ultimate goal is to approach the drive with a “One Hamilton” whole-district approach, and ensure masks are distributed in an equitable way. Valerio said she asked superintendent Scott Rocco to direct any mask drive efforts at the school level to Mask Up HTSD, so that there is a pool of masks for the entire township. They want to avoid one school having thousands of masks while another has none.

“Dr. Rocco’s goal is ‘One Hamilton,’ and this would seem to be a nice thing that people could maybe agree on that we could do it all together,” Valerio said.

Schulz and Valerio are involved in various school organizations across the township, and those connections might come in handy to achieve a unified approach to mask collecting. Schulz is an active member of the Langtree Elementary and Crockett Middle PTAs and Steinert’s PTSA. Valerio will serve as chair of the township-wide PTA this year, and hopes to transition the committee from serving a purely informational role to a more active one.

Mask Up HTSD could be the right project to make it happen.

“What I love about this is, this is about just keeping people safe,” Valerio said. “Making sure everybody has masks means that when our buildings are open, we’re doing everything we can to keep each other safe. How do you show community better than that?”

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