Pandemic simulation takes over Sarasota Military Prep – News – Sarasota Herald-Tribune
More than 180 students participated in a massive outbreak simulation, coordinated by school teachers, Harvard professors and famed scientists.
Dustin Johnson, 13, was keeping an eye out for potentially infected classmates.
As he stood in the courtyard of Sarasota Military Academy Prep on Thursday afternoon, students hustled past, carrying classmates on stretchers while 13-year-old “soldiers” shooed away reporters demanding answers from government officials. Panic was starting to set in as a deadly virus spread throughout the student population.
Observing the chaos enveloping the courtyard, Dustin repeated some of the wisdom his civics teacher Todd Brown had given him.
“In mass pandemic situations the most important thing is to remain calm because otherwise everyone else freaks out,” Dustin said, before running to a classroom marked “hospital” in hopes of finding a vaccine.
Students at the charter middle school participated in a mock mass epidemic simulation — a sprawling, multi-curricular learning exercise that took over the school and had roughly 180 eighth-graders working with, and at times, against each other as they tried to stem the tide of the disease. The goal? Stay alive, work together, find a cure. Students took on a variety of roles including government officials, soldiers, epidemiologists, civilians, reporters, doctors and morgue workers.
The activity was the creation of Brown, but he described it as a massive collaborative effort with the staff at the school, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Pardis Sabeti, the geneticist who led the team that sequenced the Ebola genome in 2014.
“We’re trying to really look at life skills — communication, collaboration, interaction,” Brown said. “We want to put together a lesson they can live where they simulate what would happen in an actual pandemic.”
This is the fourth year the school has held the activity, and this year students were notified of their health status via an app — a smiley face meant they were healthy — but the disease spread quickly to cellphones via a bluetooth signal, and soon the triage unit was overloaded with “sick” students, reporting a troubling array of symptoms.
Inside the government headquarters, Mark Fulghum, a civics teacher, watched as a five-member oligarchy of eighth-graders tried to manage the military, control the flow of information going to the media, and allocate funding to government agencies, keeping track of hundreds of millions of dollars on a whiteboard.
A breathless girl stepped in the door and announced that the body team had run out of funding and wasn’t able to transport bodies to the morgue — a situation that could ratchet up contamination cases. After a brief debate, Raphael Fabyanic, 13, sent the student back to the team with authorization to allocate an additional $20 million if necessary.
In the triage area kids decked head-to-toe in white Tyvek suits recorded their classmates’ symptoms and communicated the information via landline with the quarantined epidemiology team, working in a separate classroom trying to figure out what the disease was.
Outside in the courtyard, Pamela Serrett, 13, sat by the morgue, bemoaning her bad luck. She had contracted the disease while in the gym, and now she was dead. She said the government needed to collaborate with the media better and let the public know where the epidemic was spreading.
But Garrett Peterson, 13, was the lone reporter left in the media center, after two of his coworkers succumbed to the disease early in the game. A one-man operation, Garrett scribbled notes on a pad as he fielded calls from reporters “in the field” on how many people had died, where the outbreak was spreading and how close epidemiologists were to finding a cure. Every 15 minutes Garrett went live on YouTube, and the oligarchy, scientists and civilians tuned in for the latest on the situation.
Across the courtyard, Anastasia Decker and Peyton Milhorn, both 13, worked as Peterson’s investigative reporters, trying to get information from government officials flanked by members of the military.
“You guys said you found the disease,” Anastasia shouted at a government official who was successfully stonewalling her.
Walking away, Anastasia and Peyton said they were frustrated by the lack of transparency.
“They will not let us in and they threatened to shoot us,” Anastasia said.
“The government lies,” Peyton added.
Famed genomicist Sabeti has worked closely with Brown to develop the activity, and her lab developed the app that notified students of their health status. Sabeti attended the event Thursday and said the imaginary pandemic replicated circumstances she had seen while sequencing the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014 — an accomplishment for which she was named one of Time Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year.
“Students get to feel what it feels like in a lot of ways in an outbreak,” Sabeti said.
At the end of the day, the students beat the virus.
The epidemiology team second-guessed their initially correct diagnosis that the outbreak was Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), but Brown said the government and military kept the virus in check. The dead numbered 40, but it could have been much worse if it weren’t for proactive measures taken by the oligarchy operating out of Mr. Fulghum’s classroom.
“The military and government were highly organized and brought things to the table that we had never seen,” Brown said. “Every year it is something new, and regardless of what we bring to the table it’s a whole different crop of kids and you never know how things are going to go.”