President Biden has been forced to pause his ambitious plans for a swift reopening of schools in the United States. As both the federal and local governments try to navigate this complicated balancing act, there are key tech solutions being left off the table that can help U.S. school districts reopen.
States have been largely left on their own to plan individual responses, but schools need a universal plan that utilizes all available technology to get them back to some sense of normal. And time is of the essence as children are falling behind. Americans are increasingly worried that kids in K-12 schools face academic setbacks, with 61% saying this should be a top concern for schools not currently open to in-person classes.
When it comes to more controversial tech like contact tracing, parents and teachers in the U.S. will need to put politics aside to make sure an entire generation of children doesn’t get left behind.
Here are a few technological solutions that the U.S. can adopt in order get schools on the track to reopening:
Tech that supports hybrid settings gives schools flexibility
We need to rely on technology that has shown to be successful thus far in keeping schools connected while operating in both remote and in-person settings. Even though the U.S. is on an encouraging track when it comes to getting its population vaccinated, the rise of COVID-19 variants throughout the world means we’re still a long way from getting back to normal. That may be why 10% of school district leaders said in a survey last fall that they had already adopted or would soon adopt a hybrid learning model.
While some schools have adopted systems that rotate between cohorts of students at home and at school, districts should consider keeping non-teacher personnel like finance departments and other administrators working from home. Software like SAP Concur solutions can optimize back-office accounting tasks and allow schools with dwindling resources to operate more efficiently. School districts can use SAP Concur solutions to quickly process high volumes of staff paperwork via its machine learning tools. In one school district, the SaaS was able to reduce the average expense processing time from up to three months to just 11 days thanks to its automation.
Hybrid models of learning also mean that schools need to get devices into the hands of all students. In states like West Virginia,up to 5% of students were unable to connect to their virtual classrooms from home due to lack of personal resources.
Though it has been downright impossible for some schools because of budget shortcomings and resource limitations, districts are still finding creative solutions. In order to give to less-privileged students, Denver Public Schools initated a buy-back program where they bought back devices from any children who purchased a computer from the school but already had one at home they could use. That allowed virtual attendance to rise to 90%.
On top of devices, many children need reliable Internet, which can be provided through hotspots. For its part, The state of Texas has bought more than 1 million hotspots – as well as 3.5 million computers – for students in recent months. Officials in the state estimate that about 800,000 families with students cannot afford broadband Internet at home.
Smart tools can enforce mitigation efforts
Schools will have to adapt smart tools that can help make sure mitigation protocols like wearing masks and social distancing remain in place. Tech that can constantly reinforce these crucial practices to children each day is a must-have for school districts.
One way to grab young kids’ attention while teaching them about safe habits is through gamification, the process of adding games or game-like elements to processes. Ever since lockdowns began, there has been a rise of schools using learning tools that take elements of games to promote mitigation strategies.
In Taiwan, for example, a robot that children in an elementary school built out of Legos sprays sanitizer into their hands throughout the day. This not only encourages the kids to make solutions for real-world problems, but it further encourages children to take steps to stay safe during the pandemic.
Making sure students with a fever or other symptoms don’t come to school is also now more important than ever. Thermal cameras can give initial scans to tell if any of them may have a higher temperature than normal when children walk into the building. Though the technology is more widespread in Asian countries like China, the U.S. has been adopting it recently in some physical workplaces where many people move in and out each day. Thermal camera technology has the capacity to read the body temperature of up to 30 people per minute, scaling the temperature checking process and making it less intrusive than individual digital thermometer reading.
Schools throughout the U.S. have also been experimenting more and more with technology that cleans circulated air.
High schools in Florida are using a system of ultraviolet-light air purifiers that have been shown to kill viruses, including the novel coronavirus. Though it’s not a silver bullet, the school districts say they are finding that it has helped their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
When combined into a single strategy, these little tech solutions add up to make schools much safer for children to return to.
Contact tracing apps make a difference
Apps that can allow school administrators to track COVID-19 infections are vital to safely allowing children to be back in school full-time. We know from cases across that world – and even some in the U.S. – that these devices are effective and keep people out of harm’s way.
Contact tracing apps in the United Kingdom, for example, have been shown to drastically reduce transmission and keep children safe. From October to December of last year, the English government estimated that nearly 225,000 transmissions were prevented because of its tracing app developed by the country’s National Health Services.
When used in schools, these apps are able to digitally log a child’s daily health through temperature checks and self-assessments. If a K-12 student comes down sick with COVID-19, the app can immediately alert school administrators to other classmates the student was in contact with. That’s why researchers say testing and contact tracing strategies are essential for school reopenings, according to a pair of recent studies published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.
The University of Arizona developed its own app for its college students called Covid Watch that alerts users if they've been near someone who has tested positive. Most importantly, for those parents and staff who protest the use of contact tracing in schools, the app keeps information completely anonymous as it only notes other users’ Bluetooth signals. If an app user tests positive and shares with the app, other users who have shown to be around that person will get a private message saying they may have been exposed to coronavirus. University officials have said the app reduced the spread of COVID-19 by 12%.
This is all done without collecting or tracking any biographical information about the user. The app was developed using a contact tracing platform from both Apple and Google, which addresses privacy concerns by not allowing health authorities access to users’ personal information.
In the U.S. there may be no one-size-fits-all approach in place to getting kids back into schools. But an increased use of tech solutions can promote sanitary practices and give administrators the ability to be flexible. It’s on school officials and parents to embrace modern tech in order to get kids back into classrooms while also keeping communities safe.
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