Surviving COVID-19: Bringing Students Back to Campus

Surviving COVID-19: Bringing Students Back to Campus

Lawmakers, school districts and parents debate the merits and pitfalls of opening campuses

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, lawmakers, school district leaders, and parents are debating and discussing the merits and pitfalls of bringing students back into the classroom this fall. While some schools in high transmission areas have already decided to begin the year with virtual learning, the debate rages on with experts pointing to an education crisis among underserved households where children may not have access to adequate resources such as devices or the Internet.

Furthermore, higher education institutions and private schools run the risk of losing millions of dollars in tuition because of students who are unwilling to pay high prices to learn from their living rooms.

The state of Arizona is one of the hardesthit regions in this second wave of COVID- 19. University of Arizona president Robert Robbins told CNN, “There is a risk and reward with reopening the campus -- some say it's not worth it and remote learning is still the way to go, but there are clear beneffts to being on campus.” The University of Arizona announced earlier this month that inperson classes will resume this fall. Robbins also told CNN, "However, our semester is not going to look the same. We have a responsibility to protect the health of everyone on campus."

The University of Arizona and countless other schools across the United States are turning to technology to help combat the spread of COVID-19 on campus. From virus killing UV lights to contact tracing systems, private enterprise is innovating and enhancing solutions that will protect our children. Below we take a look at the latest tech and trends available on the market and what educational institutions should consider about each one.

Automated Temperature Checks

A fever has become a quick determining factor of someone contagious with COVID-19. According to the FDA, “non-contact” temperature scanning systems can be an effective way to identify and triage people who have elevated temperatures. Companies are turning to temperature tracking infrared cameras to help spot sick people from a safe distance, and schools are beginning to follow.

A range of companies like FLIR and Electro Optical Industries are selling thermal cameras for fever detection touting their product as a way to detect COVID-19 early, but health experts balk at the claim. "You cannot expect fever and symptom screening to be any kind of foolproof measure," Jamie Lloyd-Smith, Ph.D., an infectious diseases professor at UCL, told Wired. "COVID-19 seems to be spread quite effectively by people who are hard to detect this way." Additionally, temperature scanning technology can be unreliable in a school setting as students enter the building hot from outdoor gym or recess.

Regardless of its flaws, thermal cameras can accurately detect increased body temperatures leading to possible contagious people to be pulled aside for additional health checks. Plus, schools that already have operating surveillance cameras can quickly adopt thermal scanning into their system at less cost.

Creative Tech to Help Enforce Social Distancing

The concept of “social distance” is hardest to comprehend by the youngest students. Tech piloted in Germany is bringing creative ways to distance elementary kids. Gauselmann Group's "C-Ampel" traffic light uses infrared technology to measure the number of people admitted to the bathroom at a time. If the light signals green, kids know they may enter. If the light signals red, children are taught to wait until someone leaves the bathroom.

“Keeping a distance is one of the most important protective measures against coronavirus in our schools. However, this is not so easy to implement in sanitary areas: on the one hand, children visit the facilities independently, on the other hand, they cannot see in advance how many people are already present,” said Silke Gillar, director of the Gehlenbeck-Nettelstedt primary schools told Info Play International. Traffic light C helps here: it fully automatically ensures that there are no more than four children in the toilets at the same time.”

Virus Eliminating UV Lights

Conventional germicidal UVC lights, which are unsafe to human skin, have long been used to kill bacteria in unoccupied hospital rooms or subway cars. Today, schools are looking into the same technology to battle COVID-19. District of Columbia’s largest charter school network - KIPP DC is installing UVC lights as part of a larger HVAC engineering upgrade. The UVC lights will be installed into large building handlers where they will kill viruses in the air regularly passing through the system’s filters.

Other schools are taking advantage of newer technology safer for humans. A new type of UV light called far-UVC has been deemed effective in killing more than 99.9 percent of coronaviruses present in airborne droplets, and safe for human exposure, according to a new study at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Schools are already adopting this new technology to battle COVID- 19 in hallways and classrooms. Queen's Grant High School in Matthews, NC, is installing far-UVC lights into its HVAC system to kill airborne viruses and bacteria. Queen's Grant High School principal Josh Swartzlander told CNN the charter school enrolled 20 new students right after announcing the new safety measure.

Contact Tracing Apps

World health experts have been relying on contact tracing to measure and prevent viral spread since the dawn of COVID-19. Now, a myriad of contact tracing apps marketed to college campuses are available. These apps rely on Bluetooth technology to send out notifications when two smartphone owners approach each other. Students and alumni are racing to develop apps for campuses. Two computer science students at the University of Virginia, and one at the University of Notre Dame, developed contact tracing app TraceX. The University of Alabama is also working on a similar Bluetooth-based COVID-tracking app in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Health. According to a news article in AL.com, the app would notify users if they spent about 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of someone who later tested positive.

There has been hearty debate on the effectiveness and privacy of mobile contact tracing apps. These apps depend on users to log in their own information. Also, some of these apps incorporate GPS tracking, leaving users and human rights groups weary of privacy infringement.

Automated Contact Tracing Without Apps

Other companies are enhancing existing technology to meet the demand of K-12 schools without using mobile applications. CENTEGIX announced ContactAlert™, a platform extension of its emergency response solution CrisisAlert™. ContactAlert leverages CENTEGIX’s private security and location network and panic button badges already being worn by staff. The locating capability is used to determine which staff members have been in proximity — such as in the same room —to each other for a designated exposure time period. The technology can also be used for visitors entering the school so employees can be better protected against infections coming from outside. It doesn’t rely on users logging into a system and automated messaging eliminates extra hours by administrators having to contact people.

“An important part of contact tracing is knowing where people have been, and knowing how the power of technology fits into this,” said Dean Olds, vice president of innovation at CENTEGIX. “We had to meet the challenge of providing the data and presenting it in a way that’s confidential and anonymous to protect the teachers and staff.”

As the fall semester quickly approaches, schools will need to invest in technology, personnel or both to provide a safe learning environment for students and staff. From monitoring temperatures, killing viruses in the air to contact tracing, technology is clearly valuable in preventing entry and spread of COVID-19 while minimizing disruption and protecting students and staff from discrimination. Schools will benefit by investing in technology that has a dual purpose of not only combatting COVID-19, but addressing other campus needs as well.

This article originally appeared in the September October 2020 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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