The project was funded in early 2020, said Christine Marizzi, the chief scientist at BioBus. Weeks later, the coronavirus started beating the nation and the team was forced to change its plans. Dr. Marizzi, who has long specialized in community-based research, wasn’t put off, however. For the remainder of the school year, the team will train its virus hunters through a mix of virtual lessons, detached and masked lab work, and sample collection on site.

It’s a welcome distraction for Ms. Bautista, who, like many other students, had to switch to distance learning in her high school that spring. “When the pandemic broke out, I felt really helpless,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. This program is really special to me. “

A thousand miles south, students at Sarasota Military Academy Prep, a charter school in Sarasota, Florida, have also had to make some drastic changes since the coronavirus landed in the United States. However, a few of them may have entered 2020 a little better prepared than the others, having seen a nearly identical epidemic just weeks before.

These were the alumni of Operation Outbreak, an outreach program developed by researchers that has simulated an annual virus epidemic on the school campus for the past few years. Led by Todd Brown, Sarasota Military Academy Prep’s Community Outreach Director, the program began as a low-tech project that used stickers to mimic the spread of a viral disease. Under the guidance of a research team led by Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist at Harvard University, the program quickly turned into a smartphone app that could ping a virtual virus from student to student with a Bluetooth signal.

Sarasota’s recent iteration of Operation Outbreak has been sinister to his conscience. The simulation took place in December 2019, just a few weeks before the new coronavirus raged worldwide. The focus was on the simulation of a viral pathogen that moved quickly and silently among people and caused a flurry of flulic symptoms.