While schools remain in shutdown due to the pandemic, science and engineering labs in two Gloucester schools have been a beehive of activity in recent weeks to help protect front-line workers from COVID-19.
In late April, four teachers and a lab coordinator from the high school and O’Maley Innovation Middle School began volunteering their time to create plastic face shields using the two schools’ approximately 40 3-D printers, which had been idled by the school closures.
Working in some cases nearly around the clock, the educators —with help from volunteers — to date have manufactured about 2,500 of the shields for use by local public safety, health care, and other essential workers.
The Gloucester Education Foundation, which is funding and leading the initiative, has provided the personal protective equipment to about 75 agencies and organizations — mostly from Gloucester — including hospitals, homeless shelters, food pantries, and supermarkets, according to Aria McElhenny, the group’s executive director.
“We saw the need,” said Kurt Lichtenwald, a high school engineering teacher and one of the project participants.
Lichtenwald said when the pandemic struck, his wife, Jessica Lichtenwald — a biology teacher at the high school — started hearing from former students who are now nurses about the desperate shortage of personal protective equipment at their facilities.
“We said, why don’t we do this — it makes sense,” he said. “We have the equipment, we have the skill set. Let’s get this done. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon. That’s what’s great about the Gloucester community.”
The high school participants also include engineering teacher John Barry and Timothy Quinn, coordinator of the engineering lab. The middle school contingent consists of O’Maley engineering specialist David Brown, and O’Maley science and math teacher Amy Donnelly, with help from Carol Cafasso, the high school science department chair.
McElhenny said the two teams recently paused their work while the foundation completed the distribution of shields made to date. After that point, it will assess based on local need whether to continue the project.
Acquired in 2014 and housed in one of several STEM labs, the 3-D printers at the high school are used by engineering students to create the class projects they have designed. The middle school printers were assembled by volunteers in a community-build in 2014. Seventh-grade math students and eighth-grade science students use them for projects.
While the face shield initiative might seem unusual for a foundation dedicated to funding educational initiatives, McElhenny said it fits the spirit of her group’s mission.
“We are all about thinking outside the box,” she said, “and bringing that philosophy to our schools. This project was clearly a way that we could collaborate with our schools to fulfill a need in our community.”
Julie LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Gloucester-based Open Door Food Pantry, said in a statement that the face shields it has received through the project “provide our volunteers and staff with another option for extra protection and also peace of mind. …We distribute food to hundreds of people each day, and it is crucial that we keep our team members and clients safe.”
Brown, who like the other teachers also has been busy teaching his classes online during the pandemic, said he is happy to offer his time to the shield production.
“The resources we have at the school are pretty fabulous. Anytime we can bring them to the benefit of the community is worthwhile,” he said. “There was a need and we stepped in to do what we could.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.