WHAT’S A kid to do when school is shut and hanging out with friends is off-limits? Some D.C.-area students have found an answer: 3-D-printed face shields to donate to shortage-ridden hospitals and clinics.

3-D printing has been heralded as a stopgap solution to supply-chain struggles during the pandemic. With designs at the ready for download online, it takes little more than a click for someone with a machine and filament to manufacture a critical piece of equipment right from home. The question is what to make, and how to get people to start clicking. That’s where Georgetown Day School senior Jonah Docter-Loeb came in.

Mr. Docter-Loeb has a capstone English paper to write, and his classmate Margaret Tilmes has Advanced Placement tests to study for — plus there’s the small matter of figuring out where to go to college. But they’re spending their time recruiting volunteers, coordinating with hospitals and taking inventory in a makeshift warehouse at D.C.’s Eaton hotel, where Mr. Docter-Loeb assembles shields while clad in a tie-dye mask and a T-shirt that reads “Geek Password: Last 8 Digits of π.” (“Such a dad joke,” he says.)

The Print to Protect group, which also includes Georgetown Day student Emily Scarrow and Walt Whitman High School student Ali Hammoud, settled on transparent face shields because, basically, they work. 3-D printers can produce face masks, too, but the Food and Drug Administration warns they’re “unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration” as, say, an N95.

Some ambitious amateur manufacturers are eyeing ventilators, but outsourcing even a single component of so critical and technical a system can be dangerous. Besides, even if authorities approved a design as safe, likely only industrial-grade printers would be capable of churning it out. By contrast, the FDA says 10 shield designs have so far been signed off on for clinical use through a rapid-response partnership with the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs. These, combined with face masks, provide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-compliant levels of protection.

Print to Protect has 95 printers in its network responsible for creating more than 3,000 shields, and the students are seeking more from private citizens along with schools and other institutions. They and 160-some volunteers have donated to seven hospitals and clinics, prioritizing those that serve at-risk populations such as the homeless, as well as those that report the most scarcity. The next move is to explore other technologies requested by essential services, including no-touch door openers and splitters that allow ventilators to serve multiple patients.

It’s easy amid social distancing directives to feel, as Ms. Tilmes described it, “really helpless,” “stuck at home sitting in quarantine not able to do anything.” 3-D printing can hardly make up for all that hospitals and clinics lack, but it’s a way for some to fight alongside those on the front lines without venturing farther than the backyard — and while still leaving time for homework.

Read more: