A safe space

As schools, colleges and universities plan for the return of students once again, huge efforts are going into maintaining COVID-safe spaces across institutions. Could technology play a key role in achieving this?

Schools, colleges and universities faced unprecedented challenges throughout 2020, initially in their quick response to the shift to online learning, later followed by the need to welcome staff and students back in a safe way.

With students hopefully soon returning to their campuses once more, those challenges look set to continue well into 2021 and, while keeping on top of changing regulations is paramount, technology can also play a pivotal role in creating COVID-secure spaces across teaching rooms, communal areas and even campus-wide.

Classrooms and teaching spaces are a particular area of focus, with technology such as wireless collaboration tools with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) support proving popular. In larger spaces – particularly in higher education settings where hybrid and remote learning is likely to continue in the future – ceiling array microphones that can be positioned to pick up all potential speakers in a room, enabling students to ask questions without being handed physical microphones, are seen as a useful way to reduce shared touchpoints without impacting the experience.

Many institutions also want to safely maintain the collaborative teaching and learning that has proved so effective. Here, an option is to schedule times for ‘bubbles’ to use smaller learning spaces equipped with collaborative displays, but now perhaps with added medical-grade anti-microbial coatings. Equipping these spaces with video also means educators can dial-in remotely and offer a seminar-like learning experience.

One example of this is the Royal College of Art, which invested in a series of Zoom Rooms in 2020. Alex Watt, ICT services manager, Royal College of Art, explains: “As all our students are postgraduates and the college is quite small, networking with academics is one of the big draws, so this was seen as a way of safely encouraging that. Students can meet within their six-user group cohort and have a remote session with an academic to give that seminar feel; you can also have a group of six in a space, working with another group of six on another campus or with students who are scattered across the world or the country. The intention was to be prepared for every eventuality.”

Technology has also played a key role in the University of Edinburgh’s response to the pandemic, as Lawrence Dickson, training and audit lead, director, Biosafety Training Institute in the Health and Safety Department, explains; as well as following the regularly updated guidance from the Scottish government: “The university’s COVID security responses involve extensive use of technology, including online meeting software, learning platforms, Sharepoint and more.

“There has been lots of investment in equipment, systems and software across the entire university, ranging from remote monitoring of estates issues, through to delivery of student learning. We’ve also developed apps in-house to allow students to book study space in the libraries, while keeping occupancy within COVID limitations.”

COVID-safe communal spaces

Indeed, while teaching spaces can be relatively organised and social distancing more easily monitored, communal spaces such as libraries, canteens and the corridors that lead to them create their own challenges. And it’s here that digital signage is playing a vital role.

“Dynamic, high-brightness messages, located in areas of high footfall that cannot be ignored, are necessary to keep the ever-present danger front of mind,” explains Jon Garaway, education account manager at Sharp NEC Display Solutions.

“Digital signage offers a multi-use communications channel which can be quickly and easily updated with constantly changing, animated imagery. Not only can it flash up ‘Hands, Face, Space’ reminders, but it can also be utilised for more general cross-campus student outreach – including how to access mental health support, which will be more vital than ever in the current situation.”

Matthew Dunne, senior sales manager at AV integrator CDEC, agrees: “Digital signage platforms can be updated almost instantly with the latest COVID information, directions/routes and changes to the norm. They also allow you to show government video streams of the latest COVID warning advertisements.”

Image source: cottonbro/Pexels

Informing staff and students of key measures is one aspect of maintaining COVID safety, but arguably more important is ensuring spaces don’t get overcrowded. Here, Garaway highlights Sharp/NEC’s Entrance Control Management solution, which uses sensors to measure and control the movement of people to restrict the number gathering in any given space. Visitors are alerted on digital signage displays once capacity has been reached.

“Technology such as this might enable canteens and libraries to maintain better control over student numbers, enabling them to safely remain open for 24/7 access,” adds Garaway.

Indeed, a key advantage of digital signage is that it’s flexible and future-proof. “Even beyond the current health crisis, your investment in visual technology can be redeployed across campus to support the teaching and learning process, wherever needed,” highlights Garaway.

“While ‘Hands, Face, Space’ remains the key message in the fight against the virus, technology undoubtedly has a role to play in reinforcing and enabling this without placing additional pressures on staff…”

In addition to analytics embedded within cameras to ensure social distancing, Motorola Solutions has introduced a number of other tools to help keep staff and students safe. For example, camera analytics combined with Motorola’s video management system, Avigilon Control Center, can detect whether individuals are wearing face masks. Hamish Dobson, VP product management, video security and analytics, explains: “The system can generate automated alerts as well as site-wide reports that are aggregated as statistical analysis to help identify hot spots. As an example, compliance reports can be run on students in the hallways for wearing masks to evaluate the effectiveness of an enforcement campaign.”

Temperature checks have been another key tool in the battle against COVID and, according to Dunne, some visitor management systems will soon incorporate a temperature sensor to test people on arrival. Even without this, these systems are experiencing something of a boom in popularity in the current environment.

Dunne explains: “In reception areas, the latest visitor management systems will not only help combat the spread of COVID by no longer needing to use an old-fashioned pen and paper to sign in, but they can also give the exact time someone arrives and leaves the premises, which helps track movement should a school have a positive test.”

Steve Mills, account manager at InVentry, agrees that this is an increasingly popular feature. “That’s been one of the biggest reasons we’ve had so many calls from schools recently, because they want a better way of knowing who’s in and out. With a visitor management system, you have an accountable track-and-trace record of everyone who’s been on site, so should the school ever have a situation where someone has tested positive, they will be able to run a report showing everyone who was in the building on that day and who visited who.”

Planning for the future

With so many regulations to follow and so many technology options on the market, how should institutions plan for the safe return of students and staff? Dunne suggests: “Work collectively to come up with a list of all possible risks and then plan together how to mitigate them, as different people will think of different risks. Ensure there is adequate technology for all pupils to access without sharing.”

Dobbs adds: “Look for a well-designed, unified solution. Going with an isolated, product-by-product focused system can delay the deployment process and often silo valuable insights that a unified solution would be able to provide.

“A unified solution is also often able to offer many benefits outside of the technology itself, such as being able to streamline operations and training and having one vendor to communicate with.”

While ‘Hands, Face, Space’ remains the key message in the fight against the virus, technology undoubtedly has a role to play in reinforcing and enabling this without placing additional pressures on staff and, crucially, without further impacting the learning experience.

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