Amid One Pandemic, Students Train for the Next

The project was awarded funding in early 2020, said Christine Marizzi, the chief scientist at BioBus. Weeks later, the coronavirus began to pummel the nation, and the team was forced to shift their plans. But Dr. Marizzi, who has long specialized in community-based research, was undeterred. For the remainder of the school year, the team will train its virus hunters through a mix of virtual lessons, distanced and masked lab work, and sample collection in the field.

It is a welcome distraction for Ms. Bautista, who, like many other students, had to switch to remote learning at her high school in the spring. “When the pandemic hit, I felt really helpless,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. So this program is really special to me.”

A thousand miles south, the students of Sarasota Military Academy Prep, a charter school in Sarasota, Fla., have also had to make some drastic changes since the coronavirus made landfall in the United States. But a select few of them may have entered 2020 a bit more prepared than the rest, because they had experienced a nearly identical epidemic just weeks before.

These were the graduates of Operation Outbreak, a researcher-designed outreach program that has, for the past several years, simulated an annual viral epidemic on the school’s campus. Led by Todd Brown, Sarasota Military Academy Prep’s community outreach director, the program began as a low-tech endeavor that used stickers to mimic the spread of a viral disease. With guidance from a team of researchers led by Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist at Harvard University, the program quickly morphed into a smartphone app that could ping a virtual virus from student to student with a Bluetooth signal.

Sarasota’s most recent iteration of Operation Outbreak was uncanny in its prescience. Held in December 2019, just weeks before the new coronavirus began its rampage across the globe, the simulation centered on a viral pathogen that moved both swiftly and silently among people, causing spates of flulike symptoms.

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