Teachers give back to community through initiation of mask production

It is common knowledge that the spread of coronavirus has led to shortages of basic necessities such as food, toilet paper and paper towels throughout the U.S. But another type of shortage—a shortage that plagues the nation’s health care field—is much less commonly discussed: a shortage of masks.

When family and consumer science teacher Ronna Pflanz found out about the scarcity of masks in local facilities, she was eager to take action. She considered reaching out to a group of students from her fashion courses to sew masks remotely.

“I was hesitant at first, but then a parent who works at JoAnne Fabrics contacted me,” she said. “A man from Northwest Medical Center had come in and wanted to know if she knew anybody interested in sewing masks because they needed them. She contacted me, so that’s how it got started.”

Pflanz decided to connect with students from all of her classes—culinary and fashion alike—via the Remind app. She told them about the shortage of masks and suggested an assembly line production in which some students would sew the beginning stages, some would pleat and others would attach the straps. She was met with enthusiastic responses from over 20 students, and they were quick to get started.

Pflanz assigned students to different steps of the manufacturing process based on their abilities, experience and whether or not they had access to a sewing machine. After initiating weekly Zoom meetings to discuss progress, she distributed fabric and other materials to students’ houses. She continues to drive by their houses each Friday to drop off new materials and pick up finished products, a process which takes her around three hours each week.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “The kids are doing their best juggling this with remote learning, but they tell me they’re proud of it. It makes them feel good about what they’re doing, and I’m glad because we get such a warm welcome when I drop these off—they’re so thankful.”

All of Pflanz’ masks are donated to Northwest Community Hospital. Her program provides both cloth masks for staff members not in direct contact with COVID-19 patients and surgical masks made with special materials provided by the hospital. But hospital staff members are not the only ones benefiting, Pflanz said.

“This is giving [my fashion students] a realistic perspective on how part of the fashion industry works through assembly-line work,” she said. “This is kind of the epitome of remote learning for them, because it’s realistic and necessary. They’re literally saving lives, and I hope they’re starting to realize that that’s what they’re doing.”

Pflanz is not the only teacher in the building who has offered her program’s expertise during this difficult time. Following a request from principal Jeff Wardle last month, technology education teacher Philip Tschammer and two other teachers began producing a different type of face mask using 3D printers in their own homes.

According to Tschammer, the printers heat up plastic filaments and layer them into secure headbands. It takes around two hours to produce one headband. A partnership with Harper College provides clear plastic face covers, which attach to the headbands, forming functional face shields. These shields are then directly donated to first responders, including Arlington Heights and Buffalo Grove fire departments, police departments and hospitals.

“The whole point is to reach out and show that we care about the safety of our first responders,” Tschammer said. “They’re the ones who can’t stay home and social distance because they have to go to work each day to protect us. If we can help them while they’re accomplishing that, we wouldn’t hesitate to do so.”

BG was the first school in the district to initiate mask production using 3D printers, and many others were quick to follow suite. A total of thirteen teachers within the district are spending their own time manufacturing headbands while working from home. This is an important and necessary type of work, Tschammer said.

“There have been a lot of people who have heard about this and reached out to ask for more,” he said. “The demand is there, so making sure we can get supplies is the main thing that we need.”

Tschammer and his colleagues have mass produced nearly 4,000 headbands, and Pflanz’ program has sewed approximately 500 masks by hand to date. Pflanz’ program is currently accepting donations in the form of cash, cotton-woven fabric, thread and ribbon. She is also open to new volunteers of any experience level. To donate or get involved with Pflanz’ program, contact her directly at [email protected].

“The best thing to do is making sure that you’re taking care of yourselves and your families by staying inside and staying healthy,” Tschammer said. “The quicker it passes, the quicker we can get back to any sense of normalcy.”