In March, as the pandemic shuttered schools across New Jersey, Brian Tsymbal, a student at Livingston High School in Essex County, watched helplessly as he saw his mother, Avital, an emergency room physician, go to work each day without the equipment she needed to stay safe and save lives.

“I saw she was coming home every day, completely drained. She would come home and sit in silence and try to decompress,” said Tsymbal. “I saw her courage every day, battling COVID on the front lines.”

Meanwhile, Ken Zushma, a Livingston technology teacher, had heard that hospitals across the region were ill-equipped to do battle with the virus, but he knew his school had resources – 28 3-D printers capable of manufacturing and molding the plastic face shields and other pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) that simply weren’t available in the early days of the crisis.

Rob Rolling, Livingston Public Schools supervisor of business technology education and engineering, picks up the story from there.

“Ken called me with the idea. He knew we had the capability to do something to help,” Rolling said, “and he just needed permission to pull the equipment from the schools and distribute it to students. He wanted help with logistics. It grew from there.”

Zushma enlisted the enthusiastic support of high school technology teacher Jeanne Ziobro, who involved  Tsymbal in the project. Another student, Izzy Icolari, helped develop a webpage to explain and advertise the initiative and spearheaded the sewing of face masks. Student Guy Reddig helped with 3-D printing and delivery of the PPE, Rolling said.

Although thousands of dollars of school equipment would be placed at risk, and in the early days of the pandemic it was unclear whether it was even safe to re-enter schools to pick up the equipment, the green light from the administration to take action came almost immediately.

“The superintendent is only going to agree to have thousands of dollars of equipment pulled out of the schools if you have the support of the board of education and the community,” said Dr. Matthew Block, superintendent of Livingston’s 6,000-student pre-K-12 district. “The community said the problems right now are bigger than a (potentially) broken 3-D printer … Our job was to say yes, and to allow the folks to do their great work.”

The response of the students, faculty and administrators, with the support of the board of education, led to the production of more than 1,100 3-D printed face shields, almost 250 3-D printed reusable face masks, more than 4,000 ear savers, 260 sewn masks and 100 surgical caps.

The production of life-saving PPE formed the basis for Livingston’s School Leader awards submission, “Technology for a Change – Overcoming through Innovation.” Livingston’s entry was one of three in New Jersey to receive this year’s annual award, chosen from a pool of 35 entries. Submissions were required to illustrate a district’s response to the pandemic.

Ronnie Ferber Konner, president of the Livingston Board of Education, said she was “incredibly proud” of the “authentic learning experience” received by the students, with strong guidance from faculty and administrators. Life-saving PPE was distributed to hospitals throughout the region, including the Mt. Sinai Medical Center where Brian Tsymbal’s mother worked.

Konner said the school also distributed iPads to patients at the request of Livingston Mayor Rufino “Rudy” Fernandez. Patients weren’t allowed to see their families in the hospital. The school’s iPads helped loved ones stay in touch.   

Brian Tsymbal said he and his fellow students were just glad to help.

“I wanted to find a way to help the doctors and the other front-line workers, but I couldn’t think of a way to use my skills,” he said. “I work on one of our school’s robotics teams, so I knew how to work with 3-D fabrication, but I didn’t have the means.”

Zushma connected the students with the resources they needed, delivering the printers to students’ homes in a pick-up truck, leaving them on the porch so that they wouldn’t have physical contact.

“…(W)hen Brian and other Livingston students became involved,” said Rolling, “the initiative really took off. It was amazing to watch the community support blossom from their involvement. They are really an impressive group of kids.”

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor of the NJSBA.