Tess Ferringno, a sixth grader, stands for a photo outside of the school on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at Percy Julian Middle School on Ridgeland Avenue in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

When Josh Vanderberg, the parent of two children who attend District 97 schools, learned that some teachers and community members were worried about the masks the district supplied teachers for students’ return to classes for hybrid learning in February, he acted.  

Vanderberg, 49, said he noticed some community members and teachers describing the face masks provided by the district as “tighty whities,” referring to their flimsiness. District administrators said the cloth face masks they gave teachers and students came from the Illinois State Board of Education.

“People were making fun of them because the material [didn’t seem] very effective and I knew we had access to Dave Heeman’s company, which has been importing these higher quality KN95 masks,” Vanderberg said. “I thought it would be nice for teachers and would give them a level of security.”

Heeman, 46, is CEO of Oak Park-based Paschendale Associates, a packaging company that has a factory in South China. Heeman is a member of Oak Park Coronavirus Citizen Response, a Facebook group Vanderberg started on March 11. 

The group, which allows residents to exchange information and updates on the pandemic, has since amassed roughly 4,400 members (Vanderberg was recognized as one of Wednesday Journal’s Villagers of the Year for his effort). 

“I’m in that group and a lot of people have mask questions,” Heeman said, adding that, since March, he’s gotten a reputation as Oak Park’s “mask guy.” 

He said his company took a risk way back in February 2020, by shipping masks in bulk “because we saw this coming; that’s our job. … We work a lot in the food industry and many of our customers have these packing warehouses or are working with candy or food products.” 

Heeman said Paschendale started supplying the KN95 masks to corporate clients before noticing that his neighbors were in need, too. Heeman’s company, since the pandemic started, has switched from packaging to manufacturing the masks at its South China factory and is able to sell the masks to those who need them at a discounted price. Normally, he said, the masks would be $2 to $2.25 each, but he was able to supply them for Vanderberg’s purposes for $1.50 each. If given more time to fulfill the order, Heeman said, he might have gotten that per unit price down to $1. 

A GoFundMe that Vanderberg created on Jan. 27 to raise the funds for the certified KN95 masks, which Heeman said are lab-tested in the United States, had within a day of its creation garnered roughly $8,200 for a $6,000 goal. A day after the funding was secured, 4,000 KN95 masks made in China were in Oak Park. 

Vanderberg said he worked closely with the Oak Park Teachers Association to put the masks in the hands of teachers who want them. As of Feb. 6, according to OPTA officials, roughly half of the masks had been used, he said, adding that the OPTA expects to have them all handed out by the end of this week. 

But he’s not done raising funds. On Tuesday, the GoFundMe was at nearly $11,000. While the community’s show of concern has been inspiring, he thinks the district should take a more direct role in supplying better PPE for teachers. 

“I think the community voted with their wallets that teachers need better PPE,” said Vanderberg, whose two children are returning to classrooms this trimester. 

He understands that masks, even KN95 ones, aren’t the be-all-end-all when it comes to COVID-19 mitigations, but he thinks the district should consider purchasing more NK95s, in order to make teachers feel safer and more secure in the classrooms. 

In an email statement, D97 Communications Director Amanda Siegfried explained that the district “has been preparing extensively for the transition to hybrid learning, making sure to adhere to national and state guidelines to get buildings ready.”

She said the district provided PPE to students and staff based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

“All staff were distributed cloth face masks that were provided to the district by the Illinois State Board of Education,” Siegfried said. “The district also has an extensive supply of disposable face masks (adult and child). Other items distributed upon request include face shields, isolation gowns and gloves. Key staff, including all school nurses, have also been fitted for N95 respirators, as required by OSHA regulations.”

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