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New Jersey Sixth Graders Fashion COVID-Safe Science Lab

A sixth-grade science and woodworking teacher at Highland School, New Jersey enlisted his students to build protective COVID shields for lab stations using pipe, clear shower curtains, PVC glue and duct tape.

vials in a lab
Shutterstock/New Africa
(TNS) – Steve Ferro may be a New Jersey educator with nearly three decades under his belt, but deep down he’s still a kid at heart.

It was in that spirit that preparing his school science lab for the resumption of full in-person classes turned into a fun – and COVID-friendly - group activity.

“I couldn’t find any shields specifically-built for the tall tables in our school’s lab. I Googled, went to hardware stores and nothing. So I did it myself,” said Ferro, who teaches science and woodworking at Highland School in Midland Park.

Ferro, a member of the school’s coronavirus reopening committee, said students were taught fully remote to start with in September. Lower case counts and wider availability of vaccines prompted school leaders to kick off a mix of in-person and remote learning for the start of 2021.

The school soon announced that full in-person instruction would resume at the start of March.

Face masks would be required for faculty and the roughly 250 students returning – with another 50 or so opting to be taught at home. For those coming in, floor demarcations would ensure everyone traveled down hallways in a single direction. And signs would be posted to remind students and staff to wash their hands and socially distance.

But that didn’t solve Ferro’s lab desk dilemma.

While regular (but much-shorter) desks could have been swapped into the science lab and then retrofitted with plexiglass shields, the 51-year-old teacher thought up his own design instead. The much more economical alternative that would “preserve the feel of a true lab” required white thermoplastic pipe, clear shower curtains, PVC glue and duct tape.

“I’m a very hands-on learner myself and when I spoke to [Principal Peter] Galasso about getting the kids to help, he nodded and agreed right away,” Ferro said. “It was awesome to see the kids work together to make this happen.”

Before the full reopening, one student would be in class, while the student’s lab partner followed along at home on Google Classroom in order to guarantee six feet of distance. The eight custom shields make it possible for students to safely work with their partners, side-by-side.

“It’s nice to be working with our hands again and I’ve always liked to build things,” said Ella Kosak, 11, who said she one day wants to become a veterinarian in honor of her late dog, Stanley.

Fellow 6th grader Jacob Junta, 11, says he wants to be sworn into the Midland Park Police Department like his dad when he grows up. But in the meantime, he’ll take any chance he can get to show his woodworking skills.

“It’s much better than sitting at home and being on a screen,” said Junta. “We’re having actual conversations with real people and writing on paper instead of typing on a computer.”

Ferro shared that the class recently also built mantel clocks and will soon complete a functioning gum ball machine.

“It’s always great to see teachers come up with these kinds of solutions to problems,” said Galasso, who has been the principal at Highland School for seven years. “We’ve always encouraged creating learning opportunities, while of course being safe. It’s a credit to teachers like Mr. Ferro.”

Ferro says that the desk shields have worked like a charm so far. The class has learned about mass, physics and weather – once making it rain inside of a bottle.

He also knows also knows firsthand about the desk shield’s real-world implications, too.

Ferro’s daughter, Lizzy Ferro, 17, a junior at Ramapo High School, tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the month.

While she didn’t have serious symptoms, everyone at home self-quarantined for two weeks. That included Ferro, his daughter, and his wife, Melissa, who teaches at Ramapo High School.

“It was important to do but it was tough for me to see the kids at their tables with the desk shields up through the computer screen,” said Ferro. “So, I was happy to be able to return last week after the quarantine. I’m truly lucky to be able to do what I do.”

(c)2021 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.