LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – Students at Vista Grande Elementary School in San Diego are back on campus and ready to learn, thanks in big part to a robot that monitors wastewater.

The robot is placed on top of a manhole cover to exam the wastewater below for any signs of COVID-19.

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“We have about 120 of these on campus,” says Rebecca Fielding-Miller, assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at University of California San Diego. “It just sucks up some of what it finds there and if there’s any COVID in it, hopefully we’re going to see it.”

The wastewater robot is part of the Safer at School Early Alert System (SASEA) program, or “Sassy” as participants call it, a partnership between UC San Diego and 12 elementary schools and childcare facilities across San Diego County.

A robot installed at each site collects wastewater samples, enabling researchers to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease, three to five days ahead of individual tests. Child care sites also send used diapers to test fecal samples in children who are not yet potty-trained.

“We know that with COVID you can detect little pieces of the virus in feces, sometimes even before somebody would test positive,” Fielding-Miller explains.

The cost of the robot is about $3,000.

“I will say it is less expensive than a diagnostic COVID-19 test for everybody on campus once a week, certainly,” says Fielding-Miller.

In addition to the robots, teachers or staff use a swab to sample a one-square-foot section of the center of the floor in a classroom, which is where aerosols tend to settle.

Testing children and staff at each location is the third part of the “Sassy” detection program.

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The hope is for schools across the country to implement the program. It’s been so successful in San Diego that researchers are getting international attention. The Israeli Ministry of Health recently reached out to see if it can be implemented in that country.