Surveillance Project Spotlight—Pt. 1

From the desk of Kathy Bartelmay...

Tuesdays and Thursdays have become the highlight of my week this year. At morning carline, little ones tell me about learning to “get more spit” as they drop saliva samples into a box. And at 2:45 PM, eighth graders, Science teacher Cara Karra, and I sanitize our hands, don gloves, prepare swabbing packets, and head to 12 randomly selected pods and bathrooms to test surfaces for signs of the Coronavirus.

This marks the fifth week of our partnership with Duke University on the Surveillance Study, and it has been a wonderful opportunity for Duke School to live out its mission to prepare students to be Upstanders in their community and world.

The goal of the study is to assess the feasibility of a non-invasive, low-cost method of surveillance for COVID-19, and thus find a way to detect the virus, minimize transmission, and allow schools to reopen and stay open.  Infectious Disease physicians and Duke School parents Micky Cohen-Wolkowiez and Susanna Naggie saw this as a perfect opportunity to involve Duke School students in an important real-world project, so our partnership was launched.

Since eighth graders study cell biology each fall, they were chosen to help with the project. Dr. Nick Turner, the lead investigator on the Surveillance Study, was a guest expert in science classes, giving students an introduction to Infectious Diseases. Students followed up with experiments for detecting germs in their classes and ways hand-washing can eliminate them. Then, student volunteers worked with Cara and me to learn how to safely don PPE, collect surface samples in classrooms, and send them to Duke for analysis.  Many eighth graders volunteered and enjoyed the experience, but a few dedicated researchers have stuck with it week after week.

“I love doing this study,” Addie Snider told me one afternoon as we walked over to the lower school to test a third grade classroom.  “When the letter came out, my mom told me that I could decide if I should participate or not, but that it would be a real missed opportunity if I didn’t. She was really right.”

As we walked across campus the week before break, we passed a group of boys playing ball. I thanked Genaro Hood for his dedication. “It’s okay. I like doing this, Kathy. I think it’s important.”

For years, I’ve spoken to groups of educators across the country about the importance of teaching students the skills and dispositions that matter most-noticing problems in the world, designing ways to solve them, and persisting through the hard parts and failures that lead to solutions. I never imagined a world, however, in which middle schoolers would spend their last year at Duke School in masks and gloves, carefully swabbing surfaces to send to a lab at Duke to test for a deadly virus. The thoughtfulness, dedication, and resilience of our eighth graders, as well as our other students and teachers personify what it means to be an Upstander. And I suspect that this just might be the most important learning they will take away from their Duke School years.

* As of this writing, no COVID has been detected on any of the surfaces tested at Duke School.