Clare Shin poses for photo with sewing machine and masks
Clare Shin plans to spend her summer making masks for a local children's hospital.

Protecting the community: Faculty, staff and students make masks to help prevent spread of COVID-19

While staying home is a crucial part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are times it’s not possible, whether it’s essential work or a trip to the grocery store. Masks provide protection in those instances. Some faculty, staff and students have stepped up to make masks for members of the CWRU community and beyond who need them to help stay safe. We got in touch with several individuals who have contributed to the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Partnering to help those experiencing homelessness

Homeless shelters are often characterized by transient populations, typically providing temporary housing for those with limited access to hygiene products and facilities.

These homeless shelters, also commonly known for close quarters, are the perfect environment for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

How to care for fabric masks

Despite an initial reticence to recommend wearing face coverings for the public—mostly out of concern to preserve masks for health care professionals—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending the use of cloth face coverings while in public.

The voluntary measure, while approved by health professionals, also comes with some caveats. Clinical nursing scientist and infection preventionist Shanina Knighton recently completed an extensive Q&A with Forbes on the fine points of using cloth face masks.

“When you tell someone to do something, if you do not give them clear instruction, it will become a safety issue,” Knighton told the publication. “I can see someone literally bleach-coating—soaking a mask in bleach and letting it dry—and putting it on their face and thinking that because this is an EPA-approved product, I’m now protected against COVID. But now you have skin irritation and you’re inhaling bleach all day.”

Knighton’s Q&A reiterated the finer points of being aware of cross-contamination, proper laundering, safe methods of donning and doffing face coverings,how to handle wearing a face covering with glasses and what to do when your mask makes your eyewear fog up.

Outside of using face coverings, Knighton stressed the continued need for observing proper cough etiquette and hand washing.

“The masks to some people mean they can cough and sneeze without covering their mouth, thinking that the droplets aren’t going to travel through the mask,” Knighton said. “These masks are going to help, but we still need you to cough and sneeze into your elbow.”

“This is a recipe for more spread of the virus,” said Rob Fischer, associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, at Case Western Reserve University. “We’re talking about a setting where social distancing is nearly impossible.”

There’s good news though: Access to effective face masks can offer protection to this vulnerable population. 

Thanks to a virtual introduction by the university’s Sears think[box], the Mandel School partnered with Cleveland’s Yellowcake Shop, already manufacturing protective face masks for Cleveland residents, and Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, providing services to the city’s homeless population.

The collaborative effort was approved for $50,000 from the Cleveland Foundation’s Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to distribute up to 10,000 professionally-sewn masks to thousands of people, with 100% of the funds going into the at-cost production of face masks by 30+ sewers coordinated by Yellowcake.

Protective masks are critical supplies for not only those experiencing homelessness, but also homeless facility staff working close to each other in shelters, delivering meals and providing other services.

New research from the University of Pennsylvania predicts that people experiencing homelessness will have a 40% rate of infection, be hospitalized at twice the rate of people in stable housing, and die from COVID-19 at a rate as much as three times higher.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries contacted 13 Northeast Ohio shelters and found a current need for 1,120 masks to ensure one mask per client—and worker—in Cleveland’s homeless service system. But that number is expected to climb steadily in the coming weeks as the virus spreads, according to the grant application.

“The project came together pretty quickly,” Fischer said. “Ian Charnas [director of innovation and technology] at think[box] reached out to us to see if we could help with the application effort to address the need in the homeless population. This initiative really fits in with the Mandel School’s commitment to advocating, researching and addressing issues around homelessness, so we were pleased to be involved.”

Helping engineering researchers work safely

When word got out that the graduate and professional researchers in the Case School of Engineering needed face masks in order to safely continue their work on campus, the CWRU community (and at least one mom) responded quickly. 

Once Lynn Rollins, program director with the Center for Engineering Action, heard about the need, she was ready to contribute her talents to the cause. “I had been sewing masks for University Hospitals for a week or so and was working on optimizing how quickly I could produce them.”  

Rollins enlisted her neighbor, Diana Driscoll, a professor in the Department of Physics, and Driscoll’s daughter, Astra, a CWRU undergraduate student, to put their sewing skills to work. Together, the three not only shared design ideas and supplies, they also completed more than 100 masks in a single day. Together, the team has donated nearly 300 masks to the university and University Hospitals. 

An additional delivery of nearly 75 masks was contributed by Judee Donnelly, mother of Sara Donnelly, assistant director of financial aid and financial wellness coordinator for the School of Medicine. In recognition of her contribution, Donnelly has been named an honorary member of the Crafters@Case group.

Joining a movement to make masks

Sarah Curry and David King pose for photo with masks they've made

Sarah Curry and David King met many years ago at the Cleveland Institute of Art when they were picking up student artwork from the Regional Scholastics Art Exhibition. Curry, a cooperating teacher, and King, a drawing instructor for the Art Studio program and a cooperating teacher to student teachers, recently dusted off their sewing machines and joined the worldwide “Million Mask Challenge,” a global sew-a-thon to make cloth masks for health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Locally, momentum for the movement has been propelled by Pins & Needles, a Northeast Ohio-based sewing and craft business. The company provides instruction with helpful videos and patterns on its website as well as drop-off locations for finished masks. These fabric masks don’t replace the N95 masks for health care workers approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—patterns are enlarged so the masks can be used as an outer cover, extending the life of disposable masks.

Curry and King have finished more than 100 masks so far and plan to continue sewing. To learn how you can get involved, visit the Pins & Needles website.

Supporting CWRU’s international students on campus

Assistant Provost for International Affairs Molly Watkins and her colleagues in the Center for International Affairs have been doing their best to support the many international students who have been unable to return home and remain on campus. So when Watkins read the email from President Barbara R. Snyder about the need for protective masks for members of the CWRU community, she knew this was another way she could lend a hand. 

Watkins reached out to her minister, the Rev. Joe Cherry of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland (UUCC), to recruit some help—she knew many members of the church had already been making masks, and that they could also help get the broader church community involved. Together, they’ve created 50 mask-making kits for volunteers to pick up, and have committed to donating 750 masks to the campus community, which Watkins has volunteered to deliver once they’re completed.

In addition to the masks pledged by UUCC, the Center for International Affairs received a surprise gift of 200 masks from the Shanghai Jiao Tong Institute—one of their academic partners in China. Even though the university isn’t currently sending students to the institute, the two programs have stayed in touch and continue to check in with each other. 

Revising summer plans to help a local children’s hospital

Clare Shin, a second-year law student studying to become an intellectual property lawyer with a focus on the fashion and entertainment industries, is devoting her summer to giving back to the community.

After her summer associate internship was canceled because of COVID-19, Shin volunteered to sew masks for a local children’s hospital. Her goal is to make 80 to 100 masks per week.

“I have a background in fashion, a sewing machine and now a lot of spare time,” said Shin. “I know that many students like me had summer plans, jobs and internships that were canceled. This is a difficult time for all of us, but my hope is that I show other students and members of our community that there are still things we can do to make a difference and help people in need.”

Shin will begin working on masks full-time as soon as she finishes final exams on May 1. She is accepting donations to purchase fabric with Spiderman, Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter and other fun patterns that would help children feel more excited about wearing face masks. Those interested in donating funds or clean, 100% cotton fabric can contact her at

Assisting a community from afar

Students in the Engineers Without Borders chapter at CWRU had planned to travel to the Dominican Republic in August to assist a community with implementing a better water distribution system. As the concerns related to COVID-19 spread, the students quickly realized that their travel plans would have to wait. But, even as they transitioned to learning remotely, they knew they could continue to support the community, which the organization has worked with since 2012.

At the suggestion of Engineers Without Borders–USA, the students reached out to the community to see how they might be able to assist during the pandemic, and found that masks were among the top concerns facing the community.Though the students explored the option of sending masks to the Dominican Republic, the prospect was too costly. Instead, the students raised $1,360 in just five days to donate to the community so that they would be able to purchase them directly from a factory in the country.