Aug 03 2020

Reopening Schools in a Socially Distanced World — and the Tech That Could Help

Here are the technologies gaining steam as school districts navigate an uncertain year.

As the nation has barreled through the summer of COVID-19, education has taken center stage. Amid continuing health and safety concerns, school leaders and educators are grappling with the decision of whether to return to school or continue remote learning this coming school year.

Across the U.S., districts big and small — from Los Angeles and San Diego to Indiana’s Metropolitan School District of Washington Township — have already opted out of a fall reopening. Others continue to weigh the pros and cons.

But the stakes are high. Nationwide, a USA Today/Ipsos poll found 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to go back to school if classrooms reopened in the fall.

Despite the uncertainties, one thing is clear: Technology will play a stronger role in supporting education as we look to the future.

“Technology can be a powerful tool to help administrators and faculty prepare for a variety of scenarios, whether instruction remains online, returns to the classroom or embraces a hybrid of the two,” says Vincent Grosso, senior vice president and managing director of National Geographic Learning, a Cengage company.

How Technology Can Help Schools Make In-Person Learning Safer

For schools that plan to return to some form of in-person learning in the coming school year, teachers will need a way to circulate among their socially distanced students — keeping students in their seats and avoiding the prospect of them crowding around the teacher’s desk.

Tools like the Ergotron TeachWell Mobile Digital Workspace can help with this. This compact mobile workstation gives teachers the freedom to move around the classroom while maintaining social distancing protocols among the kids.

Other infrastructure changes lean in this direction as well. The LocknCharge charging kiosk, for example, offers a contactless way for students to charge and pick up their devices. Device sanitization units also present a single destination for efficient disinfecting of laptops and tablets using UV-C light.

DISCOVER: How are schools reopening in the fall?

Since fever is an early indicator of COVID-19 infection, some schools are also looking at thermal cameras as a screening mechanism to detect those with elevated temperatures. Funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is helping Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Illinois implement thermal screening technology for that purpose.

“We must check temperatures before kids come into the school, according to the state department of public health,” says district CIO Keith Bockwoldt. “Our solution uses a thermal camera aimed at the corner of the eye, and it can scan up to 36 people at one time. We need to process a lot of people quickly, and this will show the temperature above the person’s head in the viewfinder — green meaning they are OK, red meaning their temperature is high.”

The thermal camera is just for initial screening: Those who test high will be taken aside for more accurate testing with medical-grade thermometers.

Josh Swartzlander
We are taking an ‘any means necessary’ approach."

Josh Swartzlander Principal, Queens Grant High School in North Carolina

Meanwhile, others say that if we are fighting an airborne disease, we should also be focusing on air quality.

Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells The Wall Street Journal that improving air filtration and ventilation in schools using portable air purifiers and high-efficiency filters can potentially help mitigate the potential airborne transmission of the virus.

Queens Grant High School in North Carolina is taking an HVAC approach to reopening its six-building campus. To prepare for a school year that will likely bring a mix of online and in-person instruction, officials there have installed ultraviolet lights throughout the air system as a way to kill viruses.

“Day cares and hospitals and hotels have been doing this, and we have seen some articles in different publications saying UV could be effective in disinfecting viruses that are circulating through the system,” says Principal Josh Swartzlander.

The UV won’t help with face-to-face transmission but could reduce viral load in circulating air. “We are taking an ‘any means necessary’ approach, and this was one more thing that we could do,” Swartzlander says, adding that the school paid for the upgrades with operational cost savings generated by the shutdown.

READ MORE: Here’s what districts need to know about blended learning.

With Emerging Tech, Schools Can Better Adapt to Ever-Evolving Scenarios

Some districts are experimenting with more cutting-edge technologies.

This spring, New Albany-Plain Local Schools in Ohio conducted early testing on a tracing system that would track students’ locations and interactions. Others have taken up this approach as well: The Safely Reopen Schools mobile app leverages smartphones to record information about location, time, duration and participants involved in an interaction.

“If a student were to test positive, the school would likely begin their contact tracing efforts by looking at the student’s schedule to see what classes they attended,” says Nadir Ali, CEO of Inpixon, an indoor positioning and data analytics company. “Digital contact tracing can add a lot of value by objectively identifying those areas of the school in which an infected person spent a significant amount of time and targeting just those areas for deep cleaning.”

Another novel approach involves the potential use of small drones to clean classrooms and shared spaces quickly and efficiently. “If the drone is able to pop up above the tables and chairs and spray a fast-drying solution, just zipping back and forth in a regular pattern, there’s no way a human could do that nearly as fast. That has real possibilities,” says Ella Atkins, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and an IEEE senior member.

Others are looking to a carefully managed facial recognition implementation as a path toward safe reopening. “Facial detection analytics can be used to count the number of people in a group or determine the distance between people. This analytic can be on the camera’s edge or run through a video management system,” says Bruce A. Canal, education segment development manager at Axis Communications.

Schools are making the most of these technologies by implementing simple policies in support of in-person learning. In Idaho, Nampa Christian Schools reopened, but without assemblies and other large gatherings. McKinsey researchers point to a number of other simple yet effective measures, noting that “designated entrances and exits for different student cohorts, sectioned off common spaces and floor markings to direct foot-traffic flows can help students and staff maintain distance.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Find out how to improve remote learning experiences for students. 

How to Improve Remote Learning This Fall

Many schools have announced that they are adopting some form of online learning this coming school year. As of late July, 10 out of the nation’s 15 largest school districts are choosing to start the fall semester with remote learning only, affecting over 2 million students, according to Education Week’s school reopening tracker.

There’s also the possibility that schools physically reopening will be forced to close again. But just as in the physical classroom, technology can support at-home learning.

Educators teaching remotely will need effective means to organize and monitor student behaviors at home. GoGuardian Teacher and its related classroom management tools show how teachers can leverage digital tools for effective home learning.

For example, a screen sharing feature gives educators the freedom to easily share anything on their computers with their students. A screen view feature allows teachers to see what a student is working on and to manage those activities more effectively. “School districts, teachers and students all are relying on technology as their forum for communication, for creating clarity around the assignments and ultimately for being able to take action — to actually learn the material,” says Mariana Aguilar, manager of research at GoGuardian.

Mariana Aguilar, Manager of Research, GoGuardian
School districts, teachers and students all are relying on technology as their forum for communication, for creating clarity around the assignments and ultimately for being able to take action — to actually learn the material."

Mariana Aguilar Manager of Research, GoGuardian

Some schools have leveraged the lessons learned this spring to position themselves for effective remote learning. “From face-to-face instruction to webcasts, Zoom meetings, Google Classroom, Google Meets and other platforms, teachers have shown their technologically innovative selves to bridge the gap of social distancing,” New York’s Tully Central School District reports.

To make best use of all these enabling technologies going forward, districts will need creativity, intelligence — and cash. Schools will need to invest in digital equity, ensure all students have access to devices and bandwidth, and find funding for enhanced IT support.

“The IT staffing resources needed to integrate and support the increase in devices and technology applications may require additional IT staff,” according to the Maryland state recovery plan for education. “The investment in technology must be supported and sustained.”

Illustration by Hylton Warburton