Relying on Existing Technology to Meet COVID-19 Safety Requirements
Schools and colleges are expected to implement specific COVID-19 safety protocols, yet many are working with significantly reduced budgets.
The amount of pressure on schools and universities for the 2020-2021 academic year is unprecedented. In addition to having to re-invent the way they provide education in a time of crisis, schools are tasked with mitigating the spread of COVID-19. They are also having to do so with little to no additional funding and in many cases, dramatically reduced budgets.
When faced with this predicament, educational establishments can use and expand on existing technology to gather actionable data to protect students, staff, and the communities around them.
When students started to return to school, things were already looking very different — and not just because many were wearing masks. In many regions across the country, back to school/college has been an on and off process with students returning to class only to be sent home a few weeks later following an outbreak. It is no surprise then that hybrid in-person/remote schedules and remote learning have now become part of the new normal.
In order to make the return to in-person school safer, administrators have had to decrease class sizes, transform non-academic spaces into classrooms, invest in extensive, regular testing, PPE and cleaning supplies, improve ventilation systems, and more, leading to mounting expenses that had not been planned for in the budget. So, it is not surprising that many school districts and universities are hesitant to invest in new equipment (such as thermal screening systems, tracking beacons and other technologies) that will have little to no use beyond the current pandemic.
Rather than invest in these types of short-term solutions, educational establishments are looking to existing technology to address their evolving needs. They are finding that the ability to adapt what they already have is a tremendous benefit.
Using Physical Security Systems for Occupancy Management
Research has shown that one of the keys to controlling the spread of the virus is reducing the time individuals spend in close contact with each other in enclosed spaces. This can be really difficult to implement in any organization, but it is particularly challenging for schools and colleges. Hence, many are looking at solutions to help them manage occupancy so they can limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
This means first defining the maximum allowable capacity in enclosed spaces as set by local authorities and medical experts. Then they must count exactly how many people are in each environment at all times. And finally, they must be able to quickly scale up or down the number of people in any given space before it reaches its allowable threshold.
Given that physical security systems are already helping many educational establishments keep track of who is on their premises, it makes sense to think about ways to also use these systems for managing occupancy and density. Adding analytics to an existing video surveillance system can give schools the baseline technology necessary to achieve effective occupancy management of their spaces.
New analytics enable schools to operate within established guidelines for occupancy density while leveraging existing systems to pivot their strategy and respond to new risks. These solutions can count the number of people in a building, visualize the data, and send alerts to administrative staff when occupancy limits are being reached.
In addition to providing demonstrable compliance with local mandates, this approach is considerably less costly than using dedicated staff for counting and thus delivers instant ROI. It is also less prone to error than human counting methods.
Occupancy management can be further improved by unifying video surveillance and analytics with access control systems (ACS). Once thresholds have been established for all the areas on campus, institutions can use their ACS to automatically manage the number of people in an area by setting schedules for all members of the community. Faculty, staff, and students are assigned specific times when they can enter spaces, like cafeterias or gym facilities. Then, if someone uses their access control card outside of their scheduled time or if the area is already at capacity, the ACS will ensure compliance by not allowing them in.
Occupancy management solutions can also be used to inform other activities, like cleaning processes. In the past, cleaning was done according to a preset schedule. Now, the system can notify the cleaning staff when to clean a bathroom, for instance, based on the number of people who have used it.
Supporting Contact Tracing and Screening Procedures
We also know that contact tracing is important for stopping the spread of the virus, but doing it manually is time-consuming, inefficient, and expensive. What’s worse is it’s prone to error, which means that people might not be informed about potential exposure.
Instead, using the data already collected by an ACS can give institutions a clear picture of where faculty, students, and staff have been and when. Working with this data, administrators and health officials can then determine who else was in the same space and for how long. The system can then notify any individuals who may have been exposed to the virus that they should check for any symptoms, get tested, or self-quarantine.
Schools around the world have also put in place screening procedures to try and minimize the risks of outbreaks. However, they often have to rely on manual processes that are time-consuming and error-prone. To address the challenge, solutions are now on the market that can help automate the screening process for students, staff and visitors entering school premises.
These solutions help digitize screening questionnaires used by the school and walks admission personnel through each step to identify individuals requiring additional assessment. They also centralize the data collected and automate supervisor notifications. This way, administrators can significantly speed up the screening process while maintaining safety compliance and minimizing disruptions to the school day.
Learning Happens Best When People Feel Safe
Educational institutions are responsible for creating positive learning environments and instruction, and learning happens best when everyone feels safe. This has never been truer than in the middle of a pandemic.
Because administrators are tasked with protecting students, staff, and visitors – usually on a strict budget – it’s imperative that they invest in a security system that will provide the most technologically-advanced solution both today and tomorrow.
Increasingly, we are seeing a greater focus on unifying disparate technologies and systems and then leveraging this unification to make data-driven decisions. Hence, educational establishments need an open architecture physical security system that offers them the flexibility to decide which devices serve them best.
While it is unclear what will be required in the future, we do know that having the ability to adapt and implement new technologies quickly and effectively will play a key role in keeping staff and students safe today, and their surrounding communities thriving long after the current threat has subsided.
Jason Friedberg is Commercial Head of Education at Genetec, Inc.