Teachers and students use ‘Real World 101’ skills to save lives

Newton. Through virtual learning, 3-D printers, networking, and donations, teachers and students are making shields and masks to protect health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newton /
20 Apr 2020 | 12:39

Danielle Tooker has been a Family and Consumer Science teacher for 16 years at Kittatinny Regional High School, which, like all other schools, has been teaching remotely for the past month. She had an idea: teach her sewing students to make masks.

“I gave them instructions on their Google classroom, instructional videos, and photos of examples that I made,” Tooker said. “I did not require it as a lesson but asked them to do it as extra credit and a community project. Many took up the task."

Former students even got in touch with Tooker with their own versions of the mask.

Students are using cotton, which Tooker said can withstand high heat for cleaning and sterilizing. Most of her students have purchased their own fabric.

Students dropped off their masks at Newton Memorial Hospital and with nurse friends and family members.

Tooker said she’s never had students make masks before.

“Unfortunately it was out of necessity due to the shortage of supplies for our health care workers,” she said. “And now that the CDC recommends the general public to cover their face in public places, it became a meaningful lesson for them that could literally save a life.”

Kittatinny Regional High School principal, Brian Bosworth, said the school community "steps up to the plate throughout the year in times of need and this is no different."

"Obviously, these are unprecedented times and it's amazing to see our students and teachers coming through and figuring out ways that they can help," he said.

Kittatinny and Newton High have a friendly rivalry when it comes to sports, and have harbored a strong coalition when it comes to making face shields.

“As soon as I heard what Newton teacher Jim Hofmann was doing, I got on board as fast as I could to help,” said Kittatinny science teacher Doug Carnegie. “I talked to our superintendent, Dr. Hutcheson, and he gave me permission to take the school’s 3D printer home and other equipment I would need. I am making bands which are like the visor of a hat. I then pass them to Hofmann and his family, who finish the production with the other parts, including a plastic-faced shield and rubber bands to hold on. I set up a link so that my students can follow what I’m doing as part of their remote learning.”

The 'loading dock'

Newton science teacher and robotics coach Jim Hofmann is at the epicenter of quite a production line. Assisted by 45 teachers from around the area who use 3D printers to make parts, they are delivered to what he calls “the loading dock," that is, his front porch. Hofmann, his wife, and their daughter then assemble the shields in their basement.

It all started when Hofmann received an e-mail from Rutgers Medical School student Rohan Sawhney. They had met previously when Sawhney had contacted Hofmann about 3D printers. In his message, Sawhney underscored the massive lack of protective shields at hospitals treating COVID-19, and that it was not possible to order parts from China.

“I realized I had a 3D printer in my basement and could probably get two more from Newton High School,” Hofmann said. “We could make protective shields.”

What started about a month ago has escalated, and the movement produced 1,500 face shields for healthcare workers.

“I feel like we’ve saved 1,500 lives,” Hofmann said. “We’re trying to get them into high-density areas close to the city. It’s a matter of working with receiving managers and making sure everything is approved. Each of the 45 helping is one tooth in the gear. We are doing all of this while keeping a safe distance.”

Hofmann’s day starts at 7 a.m., driving around and moving materials. Gravity Design, ThorLabs, and Planet Networks have all been instrumental in making this project possible, he said.

Newton High School science teacher Michael Bussow is one of the 45 teachers.

“My brother gave me a 3D printer a few years ago,” he said. “I was happy to jump in.”

Planet Networks donated 30 spools of PLA filament to the cause, said founder and owner, Robert Boyle. Planet also purchased 1,000 injection molded halos to help ramp up the scale of the donations.

"We are helping to source more PETG sheet material," said Boyle. "If anyone has a source with the material in stock, please reach out to any of us.”

Newton High School principal Jeff Waldron said Hofmann reached out to him shortly after school closed.

“He is particularly aware of the challenges our front-line medical professionals, and asked me if he could take our 3D printers to his house while the building remained closed," said Waldron. "At first I assumed he wanted access to the printers so he could continue to work with his students on 3D design projects. Then he explained that he planned to print components for the Prusa Protective Face Shield and assemble complete units for distribution to medical facilities.."

He said he was not surprised, having worked with Hofmann for almost 25 years.

"He is a man of action," he said. "If Jim identifies a problem he can address, he takes action.”

Around the county

Laura Merck, a school counselor at Vernon Township High School, started making masks for her sister, niece, and son's fiancé.

“My sister doesn't work on a COVID floor every day, but she was issued one basic mask and was told, ‘Make it last, we need them for the ER and the COVID floor nurses,’” she said.

Her niece is a new physician’s assistant in an emergency room.

“She is terrified knowing she has one N95 mask and two basic masks,” Merck said. “She was also told to make them last. My son's fiancee is in her MD residency in a Detroit hospital. She was given two N95s and told that is all she has for an indefinite amount of time."

Given these scary situations, Merck started sewing masks for them.

“I sent them masks in the mail, I delivered them masks, and I made more and sent them for their colleagues who didn't have any extra protection,” she said. “I was told that patients enjoyed the funny fabrics, and it made them smile. If I could make a sick patient smile, it was enough for me.”

About one week into home instruction, Vernon physics teacher and robotics advisor Keith McCotter reached out to some of the other Vernon robotics mentors.

“He had been thinking about what he could do to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, and realized that the team’s 3-D printers were sitting unused inside Vernon Township High School,” said Samantha Kabe, a mathematics teacher at the school. “Mr. McCotter was not sure in that moment about all the details, but was curious if the other mentors would want to start printing PPE for our county's essential workers. It was an obvious and emphatic 'yes' from mentors Aaron Kiedes, Martin Pirringer, and Samantha Kabe."

The high school and school district administration were quick to remove the printers from the school, said Kabe. Jon Bruno and Roger Foco, the engineering teachers at Vernon Township High School, also volunteered to join in on the printing.

“Wallkill Valley, we are doing whatever we can to help our community in this time of need,” said principal David Carr. “As usual, I am so proud of our students and staff for stepping up when they are needed most. We have donated N95 masks, rubber gloves, and safety glasses to the dedicated medical staff at Atlantic Health. Many schools in our county have done the same."

Wallkill Valley's media specialist, Chris Stefanski, has begun making face shields with some of the school's 3D printers, said Carr. The school's chapter of the Future Business Leaders of America have donated every item in their food pantry to needy families in Sussex County.

"Led by juniors Danielle Fetzner and Madison Gunderman, our custodial staff delivered two truckloads of food," Carr said.

Dr. Vanitha Rodrigues is the director of radiology at Newton Medical Center. Her children attend At Pope John XXIII.

“I’ve worked with the Sparta Library to use their 3D printer, and Pope John principal Gene Emering had 3D printers from the school delivered to our house and several others,” she said. “The school’s Robotics Team coaches had prepared them for a competition, which got cancelled due to the virus."

Even amid all the cancellations, the students have been busy with some really important work.

"This gives the students a way to use their skills and help the community," Rodrigues said.

“I feel like we’ve saved 1,500 lives." Jim Hofmann, science teacher