Vocational schools’ teachers, students use skills, equipment, supplies to help in COVID fight

New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools are contributing to the effort to ensure those on the front lines battling COVID-19 have the protective equipment they need.

Vocational schools in nearly every county across the state have been gathering up extra medical supplies, including gloves, isolation gowns, surgical masks, disposable aprons, shoe covers, goggles, thermometers and other equipment and donating them to local hospitals or to their county offices of emergency management.

Personal protective equipment, commonly referred to as PPE, has been in short supply at hospitals and other medical facilities around the state since the virus that causes COVID-19 began showing up in New Jersey a few weeks ago.

As of Saturday, New Jersey had 105,523 cases of COVID-19, including 5,863 deaths.

With a growing shortage of protective gear, staff at hospitals in hard-hit areas of New York and New Jersey have been reusing masks, while some have even resorted to using plastic garbage bags as protective gowns, according to media reports. The price of the equipment has risen dramatically as states compete with each other and the federal government for limited supplies.

The county vocational schools have the protective equipment because they offer programs in allied health, practical nursing, dental, biomedical sciences and other health-related occupations, as well as auto technology, auto body repair and welding, said Scott Moffitt, the superintendent of Morris County Vocational School District and president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

“Our health care providers are putting their own lives on the line to save others, and they are in dire need of protective equipment,” Moffitt said. “These emergent needs take precedence over the educational use of equipment to train future health care professionals, so all of our schools are sharing these resources with providers and first responders in their region.”

Not only are schools gathering equipment, but teachers who have access to 3D printers are participating in a grassroots movement across the country to manufacture face shields to protect medical workers, while others with sewing skills are busy making masks.

Dan Delfonzo, a manufacturing, engineering and advanced manufacturing teacher at Somerset County Vocational & Technical Schools, demonstrates 3D printing to create masks for medical workers.

Micah Wenker, a pre-engineering teacher in the Cape May County Technical School District, connected with America Makes, a professional industrial organization that is collecting data on the need for face shields and the capabilities to manufacture them.

Wenker accepted plans through Matter Hackers and is utilizing the district’s 3D printers at home to create PPE. Partnering with a student working off-site and a pre-engineering graduate, they’ve so far made 30 shields and 10 face masks, and have just ordered more supplies.

“From an educational standpoint, I am in the process of documenting all that has transpired and am developing lessons around this response so students will learn from this experience,” Wenker said.

Bergen County Academies theater teacher Victoria Pero was among five founders of the Bergen Mask Task Force. It included two co-presidents of the school’s Parents and Patrons of the Arts, as well as two women who work as costume designers for the school.

Pero said the group has been working together for years on theater productions at Bergen County Academies. When they learned that local hospitals were looking for volunteers to sew masks, they jumped on the opportunity to lend a hand.

In just one month, BMTF has more than 400 volunteers making more than 15,000 masks for over 60 hospitals, medical centers, police departments, veterans, retirement homes, transit workers, frontline workers and, most recently, pediatric patients. It has also started making masks for grocery store workers, community centers and municipal employees.

“There are about 50 students and staff involved, doing everything from finances to distribution, product creation and development, sewing and social media as well as alumni parents, students and faculty,” Pero said.

“We work from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day,” Pero said. “We work without stopping. The only time I stop is to teach, grade and plan for my students. Our work will never compare, in any way, to a 16-hour shift in a COVID-19 ICU, but we are doing the best we can to help.”