Schools Turn to Surveillance Tech to Prevent Covid-19 Spread

When students return to school in New Albany, Ohio, in August, they’ll be carefully watched as they wander through red-brick buildings and across well-kept lawns—and not only by teachers.

The school district, with five schools and 4,800 students, plans to test a system that would require each student to wear an electronic beacon to track their location to within a few feet throughout the day. It will record where students sit in each classroom, show who they meet and talk to, and reveal how they gather in groups. The hope is such technology could prevent or minimize an outbreak of Covid-19, the deadly respiratory disease at the center of a global pandemic.

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Schools and colleges face an incredible challenge come the fall. Across the world, teachers, administrators, and parents are wrestling with how to welcome pupils back into normally bustling classrooms, dining rooms, and dorms, while the threat of the coronavirus remains ever-present.

Many plan to proceed gradually and carefully, while keeping kids spread out as much as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reopening schools recommend staggered schedules that allow for smaller classes, opening windows to provide more air circulation, avoiding sharing books and computers, regular cleaning of buses and classes, and requiring masks and handwashing. Many see some form of distance learning continuing through next year.

A handful also are considering deploying technology to help. “We are very much interested in the automated tracking of students,” says Michael Sawyers, superintendent for New Albany-Plain Schools. He believes that the technology could help the school determine whether social distancing is being observed and help quickly identify students who may have been exposed if someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers says she isn’t aware of other schools looking to adopt detailed surveillance measures. But the AFT has issued guidelines on reopening schools and colleges that warns about vendors potentially using the crisis to expand data-mining practices.

A small but growing surveillance industry has sprung up around Covid already, with firms pitching everything from temperature-tracking infrared cameras and contact tracing apps to wireless beacons and smart cameras to help enforce social distancing at work. “It’s been one of the most disturbing parts of this,” says Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Now, Cahn says, this cottage industry is keen to find a way into classrooms. “One of the things that will be a huge profit driver, potentially, is that younger children would need specially designed devices if they don’t have smartphones,” he says.

Like countless other schools, those in the New Albany-Plain district are considering regular temperature checks as well as strict enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing. The additional tracking technology, to be piloted there in coming weeks through summer school classes, comes from Volan, which sells Bluetooth beacons to some schools as a safety tool. The beacons track where people are and send alerts in emergencies. Volan is one of several companies now hoping to sell its technology as an aid to reopening schools.

Katy Abel, associate commissioner for external affairs and special projects at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, says some state universities in Massachusetts are exploring use of beacons.

RightCrowd, which sells smart Bluetooth badges to companies including Honeywell and Genentech, has developed one system that issues a warning if people get too close and another that can be used for contact tracing. “We have inquiries coming from many industries including higher education and boarding schools,” says the company’s CEO, Peter Hill.

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The pandemic transformed daily life across the world, closing virtually all US schools in March. Glitchy Zoom calls have replaced in-person conversations, and students without good access to computers and high-speed internet risk falling behind. Colleges and private schools that charge substantial fees may find it difficult to justify those charges if students continue to learn from their kitchen tables. The discussion is complicated by the fact children do not seem to spread the coronavirus as readily as adults and are typically not as badly afflicted by Covid-19—although some seem to be at greater risk.

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