Several restaurants and companies in Baltimore, Maryland have donated 20,000 KN95 masks for city teachers who are returning to the classroom soon.
The fundraiser began when teacher Laur Plawker told Golden West Cafe owner Samantha Claassen that she was worried about going back to in-person learning. Claassen told TODAY Food that the school districts were only going to provide plastic face shields and cloth masks. The school district told TODAY Food that they were following health and safety procedures that "only call for staff to be issued KN95 masks ... when serving students who require on-site aerosol-generating procedures."
"Based on expert advice and guidance, staff members may only need cloth face coverings, face shields, or surgical masks for most other instances," said the spokesperson.
"I was like 'That's not going to cut it,'" said Claassen, who said that when the conversation took place in mid-February, teachers still weren't eligible to be vaccinated. "I was like 'Well, that's scary.' ... When she told me that, I was like 'No way, we've got to do something.'"
Claassen said that she quickly decided to organize a fundraiser and reached out to several other local restaurants. Golden West Cafe, Toki Taco, Thai Street and The Local Fry all quickly decided that on Feb. 22, they would donate 20% of their sales from the night.
"We were like 'absolutely' (when asked to participate),” said John Hartzell, owner of Thai Street. "We have kids that go to these schools and these teachers definitely, at the least, need masks."
As the fundraiser picked up steam, organizations like ACME Paper Company, Cintas, and the Performance Food Group also made massive donations. Claassen said that ACME donated 5,000 KN95 masks, while Cintas donated 2,500 KN95 masks and 10,000 blue surgical masks, and the Performance Food Group donated 1,100 masks.
"We were so excited, because our very modest, humble goal was like, $2,500," said Claassen. "We were like '(with $2,500) we could get 700 teachers a pack of masks, and that would be so great.' What we wound up doing was raising about $4,000 to buy masks."
That $4,000 went far: Claassen connected with local paper supply company American Business, which gave them a deal on purchasing the KN95 masks so that the group could "get a little more bang for (their) buck." The masks were purchased and distributed through the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund.
"We got so many masks," Claassen said. "Initially, with (our goal of) 2,500 masks, we were like 'Oh, teachers can just come and pick them up from the restaurant whenever it's convenient for them. But when we got up to 10,000 masks we were like, 'Oh, we need another arm involved to do this distribution.' So we asked the Baltimore Teachers Union to get involved, and they took on that challenge, and now they're distributing those masks."
The Baltimore Teachers Union did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY.
In total, the fundraiser led to over 20,000 KN95 masks and more than 11,000 blue surgical masks being donated to Baltimore City Schools. The district has approximately 7,800 employees. The masks were distributed by the Baltimore Teachers Union on March 8.
"City Schools appreciates community support of our teachers," said a spokesperson for the district in an emailed statement. "This gift, in addition to the masks we provide and the many safety measures we have implemented, will help keep staff and students safe."
Claassen said that she was "elated" to see the community rally around local restaurants and teachers.
"We try to support as many people ... and as many small businesses as much as we can," Claassen said. "And obviously our teachers are a part of that. ... We just have to stick together, and we saw a huge outpouring of support. 20,000 masks is wonderful. It made us really hopeful, and it makes you feel good (to see that) people care. Seeing the humanity during all of this is really heartwarming."