School technology managers and faculty have a lot on their plates right now. As they scramble to come up with a safe plan for the upcoming fall semester, they need to take stock of their buildings’ current technology and how it can be adjusted to fit to any plan; be it an online-only reopen or a mix of online and in-person.
Robin Hattersley, Editor-in-Chief of our sister publication Campus Safety, has recently spoken with many IT and other school staff at some of the largest school districts in the country.
Here is what she says decision makers need to consider for a safe school COVID response this fall.
How have schools/hospitals changed during the pandemic?
“Right now, we’re thinking ‘everyone will be going back to school’ — but the reality is that of the 25 largest school districts in the U.S., only six are going back physically in any capacity,” Hattersley says.
“The rest are starting with virtual-only education or a hybrid model, allowing some in-person education on a limited basis. Some of the districts which have already reopened have already had to quarantine students again.”
Hattersley says campuses have changed in the following ways:
- The nation taking a very decentralized approach – some guidance is available from the CDC, but that really stresses in-person instruction, which really isn’t feasible with the current rate of infections
- Some have no restrictions – no physical distancing, masks, etc.
- Others have some or many restrictions in place. It all depends on the location and the politics of that particular area
- Promising practices: Physical distancing – smaller class sizes, staggered schedules, reduced occupancy of dorm rooms, cafeterias, student unions; wearing masks; better ventilation; testing for infections; holding some sessions outdoors
She says hospitals have changed in these major ways:
- Depends on rate of infection in the area
- Cancelling elective surgeries so hospitals can handle the influx of patients, although this does impact the hospitals’ income
- Negative pressure rooms – keeps air inside the room so it doesn’t flow out when the door is opened
- No visitors allowed
- Field hospitals set up in parking lots, convention centers – to help w/ overflow of patients when a location is a hotspot
Re-tooling your existing tech to solve coronavirus problems
Hattersley advises decision makers re-utilize the resources they already have to better fit these new needs. Here’s what she says smart users are doing to bolster each solution category:
Room analytics can help count the number of people in a monitored area, sending alarms when an area becomes crowded. But cameras without built-in analytics can also be used by security personnel to manually check if a location has too many people.
Some surveillance solutions can scan body temperature, but you should be careful with these. Information from these systems needs to be verified in other ways, since there is a critical difference between skin temperature and body temperature.
Smart cards, proximity cards, mobile phones with NFC/BLE can all reduce the touching of things like door knobs and locks, Hattersley notes.
Auditing functionality can also assist contact tracing efforts.
From a low-tech perspective, there are anti-microbial coatings which can be applied to high-touch surfaces like doorknobs.
These solutions can verify if someone is or isn’t wearing a mask per regulation. An administrator can deny access to individuals who don’t comply – quite handy, considering all of the confrontations that are happening right now over mask wearing.
Emergency notification systems
MNEC can also be used to keep students, faculty and staff informed of health & safety information, campus closures, and reopenings, as well as help community organizations to collaborate.
Hattersley stresses that enclosed areas need better ventilation so droplets from coughs, sneezes and talking can disperse quickly. Now is the time to make the necessary adjustments to spaces that will embrace a hybrid in-person/remote solution come fall.
IT problems to consider in school COVID response plans
Adjusting the above systems opens up possibilities for errors, or worse. Let’s review some of the dangers Hattersley says every safe school COVID response needs to consider:
Ransomware & malware
- Students and parents who are desperate for updated info are more easily fooled by phishing scams
- Hospitals are being targeted because they are so high profile — the same could happen to schools, and not just large ones
- IT departments at school districts need to help students and families with limited resources; provide network connections so users don’t fall behind on school work
- Teachers and faculty members may also need assistance with their home network set ups – do they have enough bandwidth so Zoom meetings will go smoothly?
Reconfigured on-campuses spaces
- Is WiFi available in these areas? Outside in the parking lot?
Student mental health issues – we’re seeing this become a critical issue, and schools need to respond to it
- Social media monitoring can flag words or phrases to ID when someone is contemplating suicide or some other form of self harm. Also used for other types of risks (threats of violence, drug and alcohol use/abuse, bullying, etc.)
- Tip lines – anonymous tips can be submitted via text, online, or via a call
- Kids spending a lot more time online. Cyberbullying & sexual predation is a problem in normal times… might be even more so now that kids are spending so much more time online
We at MyTechDecisions wish school technology managers, faculty, and their students a safe and informed return to school this fall. No matter the shape such a return takes, we hope those in IT are able to successfully communicate and act on whatever necessary adjustments their spaces require.