When Brookfield High School science teacher Heather Biancheri learned of the impact COVID-19 was having on members of her community, she did what many fellow educators around the state began doing: helping those most vulnerable with food delivery and more.
“I began volunteering to deliver food each week to senior citizens to keep at-risk people safe at home,” she says. She also used social media to help educate others about the pandemic.
Soon, however, the 17-year veteran teacher stumbled upon a unique and critical source of support she could also provide. With schools closed and science labs standing empty, Biancheri realized she had a surplus of much-needed gloves, gowns, and other personal protective equipment that were in short supply at hospitals and other healthcare facilities. She knew other science teachers were also sitting on PPE gold mines in their schools.
“I considered the amount of PPE that would be easily collectable from our school labs,” she says. “Realizing that no one had begun to undertake this process, this is where I began my journey to support our community.”
From schools with love
“I have a personal interest in epidemiology,” says Biancheri, “but it was my honors biology students who initially notified me of this virus in early January, during our unit on the evolution and emergence of infectious disease. What impeccable timing! We tracked the spread each week, and I read the WHO situation reports almost daily.”
At the end of January, when the WHO declared a global health emergency and the crisis unfolded in Italy, Biancheri realized that the United States would soon be in a similar predicament with overwhelmed healthcare facilities and inadequate supplies of PPE. In February, she began planning how to collect and distribute supplies. She knew she’d have to reach out to schools throughout the state—a daunting task for one person.
“My students were incredibly helpful,” she said. “I provided them with a spreadsheet, and they collected emails for almost every public school principal in the state of Connecticut.”
In March, she submitted a formal proposal and collection plan to CEA President Jeff Leake.
“He was very supportive and promptly presented my proposal to the Connecticut State Department of Education. They immediately adopted my initiative—PPE Donations for CT—and within 24 hours, a formalized protocol was in place and the collection process was online.”
Biancheri’s friend and colleague Stephanie Vivas, who teaches biology and zoology at Brookfield High School, joined in her project after the state adopted the public school PPE collection, and they have been working on securing donations since March.
“I think at the beginning of this entire crisis, a lot of people were feeling anxiety with all the unknowns we were facing,” says Vivas. “There has been a feeling of helplessness at the events happening around us. When Heather came up with this idea to make a positive difference and provide helpful contributions, I jumped at the chance.”
PPE Donations for CT has mainly supplied gloves, gowns, disinfectants, masks, and surgical mask extenders, called ear savers, which help alleviate the discomfort that healthcare professionals feel after wearing face masks looped around their ears all day. The project has donated to Danbury hospital, local nursing homes, VNAs, and healthcare facilities—private practices including both medical and dental offices. They have also sent ear savers to Yale New Haven Health and Massachusetts General Hospital and are reaching out to first responders in local communities.
“I volunteer because I believe that it is the responsibility of all citizens to give back to their community,” says Biancheri. “While we are all in different situations, most of us are capable of doing some service work. Volunteering builds empathy by providing perspective, which in turn strengthens a community by fostering connections and reducing polarization. Our healthcare workers are currently risking their lives and the lives of their families at home to keep us healthy. We owe them the respect of being sure that they are adequately protected while they work to protect us.”
3D to the rescue
Biancheri and Vivas’s most recent endeavor has been a collaboration with Robotics and Beyond to support an initiative by Danbury Hackerspace’s Connecticut PPE Project. This nonprofit makerspace group is coordinating the 3D printing of face shields with community members and local businesses. They have donated over 2,000 shields to hospitals, VNAs, first responders, nursing homes, hospice, and other public/private healthcare organizations throughout the state. The two Brookfield educators are supporting their work by marketing and fundraising on our social media pages and also by helping with distribution and assembly of face shields.
“One of my students, Logan White, is also using our school’s 3D printers and donated filament to make ear savers,” says Biancheri. “I just submitted a grant to the Brookfield Education Foundation to secure more printers and filament, which will allow Logan to increase productivity now and for a potential second wave of COVID-19 as well as expand his printing to include face shields. We are fortunate to work in a school that has the resources to support this type of work and to have such a hard-working and compassionate student!”
“Having our students and communities involved is amazing,” says Vivas, “because that’s what we ultimately want from our students—to be informed and active community members who are a positive influence in our world. Small actions can lead to big impacts, and it’s truly a wonderful experience to know we a part of this effort.
People interested in donating PPE can contact us via our Instagram page (ppedonationsforct) or on Facebook (ppe_donations_for_ct). If someone would like to make a monetary donation to support the production of face shields, they can visit Danbury Hackerspace’s website and donate at https://www.ctppeproject.com/.