Teaching Profession

Teachers Spring Into Action to Help Medical Workers During Coronavirus Pandemic

By Catherine Gewertz — March 31, 2020 6 min read
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Even as teachers scrambled last week to move instruction online because of the coronavirus, juggling their fears and family responsibilities in the mix, hundreds set aside time to use their shuttered schools’ resources to help medical staffers on the front lines of the fight against the illness.

In big cities and small towns across the country, teams of teachers rounded up hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer and boxes of latex gloves, plastic goggles and Lysol wipes and donated them to local hospitals, clinics, and senior-care facilities. Suddenly, ordinary supplies from school janitors’ offices, cafeterias, and chemistry classes were being conscripted for service in an extraordinary battle: containing coronavirus.

Engineering and design teachers sprang into action in their own way: They commandeered their schools’ laser cutters and 3-D printers to make medical face shields. They worked alone, in vast career-tech-ed centers usually buzzing with students welding, programming computers, or learning X-ray technology.

“We’ve got nine 3-D printers running right now,” Rich Chapman, an engineering teacher at the Kirksville Area Technical Center, in Kirksville, Mo., told Education Week on Friday. He and one of his students—both wearing masks and gloves and staying at least six feet apart—rounded up the district’s 11 laser printers from several campuses a couple of days earlier and brought them to the career and technical center.

The 3-D printers make the headband that holds the vertical plastic shield in front of a medical worker’s face. Chapman uses a laser cutter to cut the plastic shields from huge sheets of plastic. The first shipment of masks went to a clinic run by the A.T. Still University of Health Sciences and to a nearby hospital.

“I totally appreciate them helping us with this,” said Debra Loguda Summers, who coordinates public services at the university’s medical library. “They just jumped to the call. It’s a great community effort.”

3-D printers at the South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover, Mass. Lead engineering teacher Jerry Shaw is one of the teachers using those printers to make face shields for healthcare workers.

In Hanover, Mass., Jerry Shaw was using the South Shore Vocational Technical High School’s 3-D printers to make face shields. After leaders of Massachusetts General Hospital issued a call for help from anyone with 3-D printers, Shaw, a former engineer, reached out to biomedical engineers he knows for design ideas. Many sets of plans for medical face shields are online, and he’s refining as he goes. Now he was tending to his eight printers as they slowly chugged out their products.

“I don’t have kids, so I can just stay here at school and work on curriculum and lesson plans and have the 3-D printing going,” Shaw said.

‘No One Is in the School Except Me’

In upstate New York, engineering technology teacher Zachary Carrico was making medical mask parts, too.

“Yeah, no one is in the school right now except me and a couple of maintenance people,” said Carrico, a teacher at a regional career-tech-ed center that serves 15 districts in Hamilton, Fulton, and Montgomery counties, west of Albany. “And they only let me in because I’m doing this project.”

Zachary Carrico, an engineering teacher at a career and technical education center in Johnstown, N.Y., stands in front of two of his center’s 3-D printers, which are making face shields for medical workers.

The last time Carrico saw his students was last Wednesday, when he drove around to their houses dropping off textbooks, computers, and WiFi units. In the rural area he serves, many students lack the tools necessary for distance learning, he said.

In Michigan, teachers from the Ann Arbor schools banded together in a shield-making initiative. They formed a Facebook group, “Operation Face Shield Ann Arbor,” where they brainstormed the nerdy details of getting the manufacturing process up and running.

But in this case, they turned their homes into little factories. The district rounded up 23 3-D printers from across its buildings and brought them to the homes of engineering and technology teachers.

“We’re trying to pivot to online learning at the same time, so there’s a lot going on!” said Bill Van Loo, a STEAM technology and engineering teacher at A2STEAM, a themed K-8 school, and one of 10 Ann Arbor teachers printing medical masks at home. “But we’re a well-resourced district, so we’re lucky to be able to do this.”

Van Loo has spent the last couple of weeks running professional development in Google Classroom, and providing daily learning opportunities—the district’s name for assignments that aren’t mandatory for students. He’s still working to get devices to every student. He’s expected to move fully to online learning next week.

As Van Loo spoke with Education Week, he was running two 3-D printers on his kitchen table, and two more in his home office. As of Monday afternoon, the initiative had produced 200 face shields and sent them to hospitals and senior-care facilities, he said.

He started out using a design created by a company in the Czech Republic, modifying it to make it print more quickly, and adding a top visor piece for more protection. Bosch Global, which manufactures 3-D printers, supplied some of the plastic material for the headbands, and a teacher raised money through GoFundMe for more, Van Loo said.

‘We Have to Do Something’

Other districts have rallied to the cause by gathering supplies they had on hand. The Los Angeles Unified School District sent 100,000 N-95 masks to 10 area hospitals. District officials said they routinely order supplies like that as part of their planning for emergencies such as fires.

Teachers at KIPP schools in several cities coordinated projects to load trucks with medically useful supplies. Sean Tamarisk, who oversees science instruction in two KIPP elementary schools in Massachusetts, worked with staffers at five schools in Boston and Lynn, a half-hour’s drive north, to gather things from science classrooms—150 pairs of goggles and four packages of latex gloves—and deliver them to local health providers.

Sean Tamarisk, a teacher who oversees science instruction in Boston-area KIPP elementary schools, loaded plastic goggles and boxes of latex gloves into his car last week at the KIPP campus in Mattapan, Mass. Sean and other KIPP teachers rounded up supplies from their closed school buildings to donate to local hospitals caring for coronavirus patients.

“I read in the Boston Globe that the Cambridge Health Alliance network needed [personal protective equipment] for their staff, and they mentioned goggles as one of those things. I thought, geez, we have a ton of those,” Tamarisk said.

He juggled the supplies project with his own work to get online learning up and running, and train teachers in Google Classroom. Most of his families are low-income, so he’s been working to get them internet access and troubleshooting technology issues. He’s still trying to figure out whether paper packets are going to work best, or whether he and his teachers can use technology to reach all students.

In New York City, Douglas Dukeman, a 7th grade science teacher at KIPP: Infinity Middle School, has been taking inventory of most of KIPP’s 15 elementary and middle schools in the city. He’s sending 100-plus bottles of hand sanitizer, 90 packs of Lysol wipes, 30 boxes of latex gloves and 175-plus pairs of lab goggles to local hospitals. And he’s getting his online teaching going, talking with parents and students.

Dukeman is active in healthcare issues in his Harlem community, serving on several boards. He knew this crisis would require an all-hands-on-deck approach, no matter how busy he was as a teacher.

“This is happening. We have to do something,” he said. “If we’re not going to be in school, there are all these supplies that are needed that are just sitting there in an empty public school building. What better thing to do than to donate these to the public hospitals?”

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