A school’s pandemic lesson got Harvard’s attention, then COVID-19 hit.

The advanced biology class at the Utah County Academy of Sciences faced a grim assignment. Seated at folding tables and speaking through face masks, students at the STEM-focused charter high school in Orem, Utah, tallied COVID-19 infection and death rates from one winter week – comparing national and statewide data with the virus’s toll at their school.

Fortunately, the school’s disease numbers weren’t real. Led by Micah Ross, a biology teacher, the academy piloted an app-based pandemic simulation, part of Operation Outbreak, a platform of lessons on infectious diseases and the public health response to their spread.

After learning about virus biology, immune response and past pandemics, more than 100 students and staff downloaded an app that tracked a virtual virus. The “virus” spread by Bluetooth when participants were in close proximity for an extended time and was slowed by digital masks and vaccines students could get after taking quizzes based on the in-class lessons.

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