Enlarge /. An electric school bus from Daimler (powered by Proterra) exhibited at CES 2019.
When students return to school in New Albany, Ohio in August, they are closely watched as they wander through red brick buildings and manicured lawns – and not just by teachers.
The school district, with five schools and 4,800 students, plans to test a system that requires each student to carry an electronic beacon to track their location down to a few meters throughout the day. It records where students sit in each classroom, show who they meet and talk to, and how they gather in groups. The hope is that such technology could prevent or minimize the onset of COVID-19, the fatal respiratory disease at the heart of a global pandemic.
Schools and universities face an incredible challenge in autumn. All over the world, teachers, administrators and parents are struggling to get students back to normal classrooms, dining rooms and dormitories while the coronavirus threat continues.
Many plan to be gradual and careful while keeping the children as far apart as possible. The guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for School Reopening recommend staggered timetables that allow smaller classes to open windows to allow more air circulation, avoid sharing books and computers, regularly clean buses and classes, and masks and requiring hand washing. Many see some form of distance learning next year.
A handful are also considering using technology to help. "We are very interested in automated student tracking," said Michael Sawyers, superintendent of the New Albany Plain Schools. He believes 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 knows of no other schools that want to take detailed surveillance measures. However, the AFT has issued guidelines for the reopening of schools and universities warning of providers who may be using the crisis to expand data mining practices.
A small but growing surveillance industry has already developed around COVID. Companies offer everything from infrared cameras with temperature measurement to apps for contact tracking to wireless beacons and intelligent cameras to enforce social distance at work. "It was one of the most troubling parts of it," said Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Now, says Cahn, this home industry really wants to find a way into the classroom. "One of the things that may be a big win is that younger kids need specially designed devices if they don't have a smartphone," he says.
Like countless other schools, regular temperature controls in the New Albany-Plain district are considering the strict enforcement of mask wear and social distance. The additional tracking technology that will be tested there in the summer school classes in the coming weeks comes from Volan, which sells Bluetooth beacons as a security tool to some schools. The beacons track where people are and send alerts in emergencies. Volan is one of several companies that are now hoping to sell its technology as an aid to school reopening.
Katy Abel, deputy commissioner for foreign affairs and special projects at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, says that some Massachusetts state universities are investigating the use of beacons.
RightCrowd, which sells smart Bluetooth badges to companies like Honeywell and Genentech, has developed a system that issues a warning when people get too close and another that can be used to track contacts. "We have inquiries from many industries, including universities and boarding schools," said Peter Hill, CEO of the company.
The pandemic changed daily life around the world and closed practically all US schools in March. Glitchy Zoom calls have replaced face-to-face conversations, and students without good access to computers and high-speed Internet are at risk of falling behind. Colleges and private schools that charge substantial fees may find it difficult to justify these fees if students continue to learn from their kitchen tables. The discussion is aggravated by the fact that children do not appear to spread the coronavirus as easily as adults and are generally less affected by COVID-19 – although some appear to be at higher risk.
The University of Arizona has started developing a student tracking app. It works like the offer of the state health authorities and uses Bluetooth signals that are exchanged between smartphones so that potentially infected students can be identified and tested or quarantined. Officials from several other colleges contacted by WIRED said they were researching different technologies, but it was too early to discuss.
Marcus Muster, technology director at Kiski School, a private boarding school in Loyalhanna Township, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, said he spoke to Identigy, a company that advertises a system for tracking people's movements. In combination with smart ID cards or Bluetooth beacons, this can control the COVID risk. The company says the platform will also be compatible with other people's contact tracking apps. "In my opinion, that would be the Cadillac," says Muster. "We know that we need to find a way to automate the contact tracking process other than just talking to teachers."
Brian Betze, superintendent of the schools in Robbinsville, New Jersey, says he is open to using the Volan system that he used at his previous school. "We always try to make schools safer for children, and I think technology is the best way to do it," Betze says.
Betze, who says that the governor's decision to reopen schools in New Jersey will ultimately be made by the governor, doesn't seem to be sure whether the Volan system – or anything else on the matter – will really protect children. “Middle school students, high school students, they want to talk to their friends. They look forward to classes, sports and lunch, ”he says. "Until there's a vaccine or treatment, I'm not sure it's safe to go back."
This article first appeared on wired.com.