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Kids can pet this dog visiting their classroom — but only after it sniffs for COVID

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For many people, the school year is finally wrapping up, and what a year it's been, navigating the dips and surges of the COVID-19 pandemic. NPR's Ari Daniel brings us the story of one community that helped keep its classrooms open by trying a unique approach with dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Two police cruisers are parked outside of Freetown Elementary School in southeastern Massachusetts, and they're bouncing feverishly on their shocks.

PAUL DOUGLAS: You might think I had, like, an elephant in the back or something, you know what I mean? But it's a 56-pound Lab.

DANIEL: Captain Paul Douglas runs Bristol County's K-9 unit. He slips a harness onto Hunter, a not quite 2-year-old black Lab. She rockets out of the cruiser.

Hi, Hunter. Whoa. Hi, hi.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG PANTING)

DANIEL: Most of the K-9 unit sniffs out firearms or narcotics. But Hunter here only has nose for COVID. The principal, Michael Ward, escorts us into the building. He says the virus has turned this year into a roller coaster in terms of student attendance.

MICHAEL WARD: You can't educate an empty chair, right? So you want kids in school all the time.

DANIEL: He's relied on masking and testing - and also Hunter. She's part of a program that's training dogs to detect COVID on surfaces in schools like this one. And although the risk of getting infected with COVID by touching a surface is low, it's not zero.

WARD: We could count on a dog coming on in, and it gives another layer of sense of relief for staff, for students, for myself and obviously the community at large.

DANIEL: Across the district, during peak COVID, Hunter and another, K-9, Duke were routinely alerting to the virus.

DOUGLAS: The dog is working just like you.

DANIEL: We arrive at a first grade classroom.

DOUGLAS: You can say hello to the dog, but first, let's have the dog do its job, OK?

DANIEL: Hunter sweeps the room, quickly sniffing the garbage can, book bags and desks. So you're

just walking around the classroom.

DOUGLAS: Yeah.

So if the dog indicates on COVID - whether it's on a surface, whether it's on a backpack, whether it's on a jacket - a dog will sit. So then what we'll do is we'll tell the administration of the school, and they'll spray it down.

DANIEL: The seeds of this program were planted two decades ago. That's when a beetle, likely a stowaway aboard a ship out of Asia, arrived near Savannah, Ga. And that stowaway had a stowaway - a fungus.

JULIAN MENDEL: It led to over 500 million wild trees destroyed as well as one-third of the avocado industry wiped out here in south Florida.

DANIEL: Julian Mendel is a forensic biologist at Florida International University. As a grad student, he pondered how to detect the fungus before the trees got sick. It's the perfect task, he thought, for canines.

MENDEL: So we've utilized canine science for ages to do the detection of many things, such as missing people, drugs or explosives.

DANIEL: And medical applications - sniffing out certain cancers or imminent seizures. For Mendel, training them to detect the fungus was a logical next scent. And it worked. Some farmers even adopted the technique to know where to apply fungicide to their trees. Then, in early 2020, COVID came ashore.

MENDEL: We immediately knew that we could take that approach to getting the canines to detect this particular human disease.

DANIEL: And help prevent the spread. He and his colleague, forensic microbiologist DeEtta Mills, gathered masks used by patients with COVID to train the dogs.

DEETTA MILLS: All of the immunes' responses to fight off this virus combines to make a unique scent that we see as people breathe out that we can capture on the masks.

DANIEL: After a month of training, the dogs were detecting COVID more than 96% of the time. Other research groups in France and Finland have made similar findings using sweat and skin samples. Julian Mendel.

MENDEL: Our goal is this approach can be available to any agency or entity that wants to deploy canines.

DANIEL: The dogs in Florida went on to screen American Airlines employees. They helped reopen the Miami Wine & Food Festival. When the sheriff of Bristol County in southeastern Massachusetts caught wind of the dogs' success, he decided to bring the program to his K-9 unit. And the superintendent leapt at the opportunity to screen the county's schools starting last September, including Freetown Elementary.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: No problem.

DANIEL: Back in the classroom, Hunter's just finished her inspection.

DOUGLAS: This room's clear. She didn't alert to any presence of COVID. And now, we're allowing the kids to say hello to Hunter. Go ahead. You can pet her.

DANIEL: Not a bad trade - peace of mind for a scratch behind the ears. Ari Daniel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.