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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 1 year ago

Sarasota Military Academy will launch COVID-19 tracing program

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The school used its Operation Outbreak program to help prepare for its newest program which will allow real-time tracking of symptoms for students and staff..
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Just seven months ago, the students of Sarasota Military Academy Prep saw what happens when a pandemic affects their community.

They saw their classmates slowly become infected as scientists-for-the-day searched for a vaccine. They saw the body count in the classroom-turned-morgue grow in a few short hours. They saw what happened when communication breaks down.

Of course, that was with a computer-generated global outbreak that happens at the middle school every year as part of the school’s Operation Outbreak program.

Students role-play as health researchers, government officials, military members, doctors, nurses and members of society as they try to navigate a pandemic.

Operation Outbreak runs through a phone app that simulates transmission of the pandemic, with symptoms and health status displayed on a student’s phone. It was created by SMA’s Todd Brown and researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Sabeti Lab.

It is designed to last a couple hours, but in that time last year, 196 students were infected, and 38 “died.”

“It was really hard,” said Giselle Martinez, a student who last year worked as a government official. “I was rushed with every decision I had to make, and I had to give answers to everyone quickly because everyone was getting sick.”

The crazy part? Last year’s pandemic was caused by a mutation to the SARS virus that causes it to spread asymptomatically.

“That’s almost exactly what we’re seeing now,” Brown said. “So through our curriculum we were able to see the effect that just one person can have, and we have a better understanding of how to handle these situations.”

SMA school officials hope the annual program helped prepare students for the real-life scenario and positioned the school to adopt a program that will help track student and family symptoms.

By the time the school opens, it will have deployed Scout, a program developed by Sentinel, a consortium of some of the world’s leading public health researchers and data visualization scientists.

“We’ve been working with the same team of people for going on six years now, and we’ve been running the simulation, so we have this fundamental curriculum that goes along with it,” Brown said. “Now that we’re really in the middle of this, it’s just a common-sense extension.”

The program will allow the school to symptom-track students and family members and easily use contact tracing for students who display several symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.

Teachers, administrators, parents and guardians who are willing to participate are asked to fill out health symptoms for their students and members of their household daily. 

Scout then analyzes the daily health updates along with student schedules, seating charts and attendance data to identify which students might have the coronavirus and how many other students and staff they have come in contact with.

“We can see who is high prioritization, and we can start looking at who a student was exposed to and send out an SMS to parents and let them know there may be exposure,” Brown said. “It’s not a positive test, and it’s anonymous, but it lets us try to get ahead of things because if you wait eight or nine days, you’re too late.”

Brown said anyone who wants to participate is welcome because it will help the school better understand where a problem might have arisen.

“In order to fortify a school campus, you have to look at it as a concentric circle,” Brown said. “You’ve got the students and parents, and it gives you some context, but the further around we have outside of the school, the better chance we’ll have of detecting it early.”

SMA isn’t the only school to use this program as classes resume. Several Florida schools and the state of Colorado will run the program. The Sarasota County School District, however, will not.

The district will use a database where school staff can report anyone who has tested positive or has come in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The database will send that information to a team of administrators who will then work with the health department to contact trace. The team will call anyone at risk and determine whether they need to be isolated.

Scout also can be used if the school were to be shut down, so the school can still track symptoms to help determine when it might be safe to return to school.

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