It is the new normal at Kinsale Community School. In an empty classroom last Monday, a staff member from Cork University Hospital's infectious disease unit produced a batch of face masks imported from China.
Before her were two of the school's brightest pupils, Oisin Coyle (17) and Shane Collins (16), and their school principal, Fergal McCarthy. The meeting was not about the boys' future career choices but rather what they could do about the masks?
The KN95 facemasks were part of the consignment of personal protection equipment imported by the Health Service Executive from China.
The equivalent of a European P2 mask, they are designed to capture 95pc of particles. But they were loose and ill-fitting with gaps across the nose and cheekbone area, putting health care workers at risk of breathing in the airborne virus.
One might ask what a couple of schoolboys might know about making face masks safe for frontline health workers. But Oisin, who is in fifth year, and Shane, who is in transition year, are veterans when it comes to personal protection equipment.
Both are big fans of 3D printing machines, which deposit plastic filament to a computer-generated design. They usually make things like mobile phone cases or car parts. A week after schools closed over coronavirus, Oisin decided to switch his 3D printers on to making protective face shields for health care workers. He planned on making 50 but when he reached out to his teachers for materials, Fergal seized on his idea: "I said this is a fantastic idea. We have a school 3D printer. Let's get it all into the school and see if we can establish an assembly line."
On March 31, Fergal opened the school to a small group of pupils and teachers and production has not stopped since. They have produced more than 5,000 protective face shields for frontline health care staff in big hospitals - Cork University Hospital, the Mercy and the Mater Private - and for care centres, nursing homes, local GPs, pharmacists and even the local convent.
Their efforts did not stop there. The boys read that nurses were getting sore and irritated ears from wearing masks. They started printing off ear savers - little plastic pieces they call "tensioners" that allow wearers to tighten the masks around their heads, relieving the pressure on their ears.
It was Andrew Morgan, the procurement manager at the Mater Private Hospital in Cork, who noticed their potential. He saw they not only protected ears but also significantly tightened masks around the face. He knew that Cork University Hospital (CUH) had problems with the KN95 masks and tipped off the hospital to what the boys were doing.
That was how last Monday morning, a staff member from CUH's infectious disease unit ended up in an empty classroom with two teenagers, their principal and a batch of ill-fitting masks. "When CUH came into us on Monday, they identified the problem and asked us to come up with a solution," said Fergal. "They asked us to fix it, essentially."
Oisin and Shane examined the masks and tried out the tightening "tensioners" they had designed. But the tensioners failed to close the gap. It was disappointing but, after the CUH staff left, Fergal, Oisin and Shane stuck with the problem.
The KN95 mask was fitted with a cheap plastic insert in the seam across the nose. They figured it needed a firm but flexible strip that would mould to the wearer's face to seal the mask. The school caretaker, Brendan Barry, cracked it: stainless steel cable ties that he happened to have in his stores.
All this happened within an hour of CUH leaving the building. "After we had our Eureka moment, we rang CUH who were already on the way back to Cork," said Fergal. "We said 'we believe we've solved it'." Twenty minutes later, teacher and pupils were in a car park half between Kinsale and Cork city to demonstrate their discovery.
Two days later, Cork University Hospital dispatched 10,000 KN95 face masks from the China shipment to Kinsale Community College for fixing.
The assembly line has been racketing away since last Thursday. The goal is to turn out 1,000 upgraded face masks every day for the next 10 days. "I have learned how if you have a hobby, you can really use it to make a difference," said Shane.