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Reopening Amid COVID-19: Why Schools are Turning to Tech

Doug Jones

For administrators grappling with when and how to reopen schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, privacy-driven surveillance technology can be an invaluable safeguard.

Earlier this month, WIRED published an article detailing the role surveillance technology can play in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education across the country. According to the article, several schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Ohio are considering leveraging Bluetooth beacons to facilitate contact tracing and social distancing as part of their strategies for safe reopenings this fall.

While these technology-driven initiatives have been applauded by many — especially as a COVID-19 vaccine remains out of reach and infections continue to rise in many regions — they have also been met with backlash. In New Albany, Ohio, where New Albany-Plain Local Schools Superintendent Michael Sawyers plans to pilot Volan’s Bluetooth beacons this summer, some community members have expressed concern over the thought of their children’s movements being tracked.

For many of these community members, their fear stems from national headlines about egregious privacy violations and massive data breaches associated with companies like Facebook, T-Mobile, and Capital One. But while concerns surrounding the ethical use of data as a whole are certainly valid, they do not apply to the type of surveillance technology schools like those in New Albany are considering.

How AI-Driven Contact Tracing Works in Schools

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Keeping space between yourself and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to [COVID-19] and slowing its spread locally and across the country and world.”

But keeping hundreds — and, in some cases, thousands — of students and faculty at safe distances from each other in crowded classrooms and cafeterias poses a significant challenge. As schools examine how best to stagger class schedules and position desks to limit students’ and faculty’s risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, they are also evaluating ways to conduct effective contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. By taking swift action, schools can help isolate the virus and ensure all potentially infected parties get the medical support they need.

Through the use of AI-based location positioning systems and geofencing, leading technology providers like Volan have introduced solutions that allow leaders to segment large environments like school campuses and both pinpoint a person’s real-time location and view their location history. Volan’s dynamic digital network communicates with smart sensors worn by everyone on a facility site to provide an unparalleled level of precision and enable private contact tracing among thousands of individuals. It can also be used to automate social distancing enforcement by detecting and alerting administrators when unsafe distancing or large gatherings occur.

Examining the Security of School Surveillance Systems

Surveillance technology started gaining traction in schools long before the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to protect students from shootings, bullying, and self-harm. But as technologies like social media and email monitoring continue to advance, some individuals and organizations believe cutting-edge technologies may pose risks to students’ privacy.

Many of these monitoring tools rely on access to an individual’s smartphone, tablet, or laptop to function. Some even take this one step further, relying on GPS to track users’ locations. When embedded into a user’s device, there’s no guaranteeing when the surveillance begins and when it ends. As students leave their school’s campus and enter their homes, are their actions still being monitored? Many also question who has access to the highly sensitive information that is collected, what is being done with the information, and to what extent it is protected.

Fortunately, not all surveillance technology is created equally. Volan’s AI-based location positioning system is currently the only private location tracking and geofencing solution on the market. Since Volan’s technology operates independently of smartphones, GPS, and the internet, it provides unparalleled location accuracy and privacy. Students’ locations are only monitored through sensors worn on campus — the moment a student steps offsite, the tracking ends. Additionally, all the information collected by the sensors is sent to an encrypted iOS application and reviewed by authorized individuals only. With systems like Volan’s, schools can confidentially trace students’ on-campus location without ever accessing their devices or compromising their privacy.

Putting Effective Technology Strategies into Play

With the right technology in place, the chances of students and faculty safely returning to the classroom this fall are significantly higher than they would be otherwise. As school administrators examine all the solutions available, those offered by companies like Volan prove that student surveillance and data privacy needn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, the best results are attained when the two work in harmony.

Doug Jones

Doug Jones

Chief Strategy & Development Officer

Doug’s 30-year career spans sales, operations and IT management, as well as teaching, consultancy, and numerous C-suite roles.

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