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Can kids keep their distance at school? Company, school district testing tracking technology

Can kids keep their distance at school? Company, school district testing tracking technology
Posted at 6:24 PM, Jun 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-26 18:24:14-04

While kids are on summer break, districts across the country are working to determine whether or not to reopen schools, and how to do it safely.

School leaders are racing the clock to figure out what the next school year will look like.

“We’ve been looking at how can we provide a high quality education in this environment,” said Lisa Yates, Superintendent at Buena Vista School District.

For Yates, that decision is simple.

“We’re hearing that from families, we’re hearing that from students, we want to be back in school,” she said.

At Buena Vista Middle and High School in the Colorado mountains, summer school is in session at their brand new, still under construction, building. Students and teachers are piloting a new platform that leaders hope will help come fall.

The platform was installed in early June and created by tech company Wolk. It works like this -- first, gateways are installed in classroom ceilings.

“The system is called Open,” said Rene Otto, Solutions Architect for Wolk.com.

Next, students and teachers put on a wearable device at the beginning of the school day.

“They’re given these safety cards or wristbands, so what these do is they act as beacons,” she explained.

The devices currently use Bluetooth to communicate. Using the gateways, the software shows when a beacon comes within a certain amount of space of another beacon, for how long, and if the beacon moves rooms.

“The point of it was to help people understand where they are in a physical space, so we can figure out if safe social distancing is being practiced,” Otto said.

The school district’s technology coordinator, Matt Brooker, helped install the system.

“If we did have an incident where a kid is positive, could we do contact tracing with this?” he said.

For students, the idea seems simple enough.

“It’s going to record where you walk and how close you get to other people,” 6th grade Aidan explained. “It’s like wearing a little necklace. It doesn’t really bother me that much.”

Others weren’t as convinced.

“Personally, I don’t know if a lot of people are going to want to wear them,” 10th grader Taylor said.

With every tracking device comes concerns over data and privacy.

“It took me a little bit,” said Reba Jackson, a teacher at the school. “I’m a little paranoid about tracking things.”

“I went from feeling like it might be a little bit invasive,” teacher Robin Fritsch, explained. “It’s not a big deal. If it gives us valuable data, I’m in.”

Otto said not to worry.

“We really want to make sure privacy is protected. So the way it works is, only the administrators of the schools have access to the identifying information,” she explained.

In other words, each tracker has a number as the identifying name. Only school admin members are able to match that number with a student.

“I don’t think any parents or people want to be tracked by a technology company generally. But if that information can help make people safer, I think it’s valuable.”

Otto said for the system to work fully, they need at least 60% of students and teachers using it. This helps find hot spots that potentially need more cleaning or more attention to create a better socially distanced space.

“I think it’s going to be a valuable tool,” Fritsch said.

As students come back, the hope is that the system will help identify who has come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and stop the spread there. This could mean the difference between sending 10 kids home and sending the entire school home in the event of a positive case.

“Typically rural communities, as far as economic development, don’t have the resources the major metropolitan areas might have,” said Wendell Pryor, Director of Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation. “So any tool like this that aids in the threat of an outbreak and the way it might spread, I think is going to be a bonus to everybody involved.”

“In person is where we want to be, so we’re putting our resources there,” Superintendent Yates said.