Clear benefits of IoT in safe return to school

Stockholm, Sweden

As the pandemic still rages, and pupils are now beginning to return to school, there is significant concern about schools becoming hotbeds of virus transmission. Smart building technology may present viable ways for the return to school whilst minimizing the health risks.

After months of strict lockdown, children in the UK are returning to school this week, but as the pandemic still rages, there is significant concern about schools becoming hotbeds of virus transmission, putting children and their more vulnerable older family members in danger. However, according to the latest information from Memoori researchers, smart building technology can present viable ways for return children to school whilst minimizing the health risks.

“Keeping schools closed comes with massive, long-term individual and societal costs. Many children cannot effectively learn, grow, engage, socialise, be active, eat healthy food, or get support until schools reopen. Parents and caregivers cannot go back to work until children go back to school,” reads the Schools For Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools report by Harvard. “We recognise there are immense challenges. There is no perfect plan to reopen schools safely, only ‘less bad’ options. There is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy that works for every school. Schools have limited budgets and staff. Compliance will be imperfect. Learning will be different. There will be disruption.”

Clear benefits

Just as in the commercial real estate sector where the IoT has seen greatest adoption, smart building technologies can be implemented in schools to improve health and safety, among other applications. Schools are just buildings after all, albeit with different stakeholders, therefore, theoretically, a similar range of technologies that we are seeing applied to office, industrial, healthcare, and hospitality facilities, can also offer clear health and safety benefits for schools.

Cleaning has become a key focus for buildings during the pandemic but traditional forms of cleaning are often not sufficient and place the human cleaners’ health at risk. Since the beginning of the crisis, UV-C light disinfection has been touted as a solution to this problem. In schools, UV-C light systems could be installed and turned on at night while the facility is empty to rid surfaces of the virus before students return the next day. The system can also be applied to air ventilation systems.

Air quality in general has also become a key topic for building in the fight against virus transmission for indoor environments. According to ASHRAE, using combinations of filters and air cleaners that achieve MERV 13 or better levels of performance for air recirculated by HVAC systems is a core recommendation for reducing exposure to airborne infectious diseases. Considering that schools are a melting pot for significant numbers of people from different households, improving air quality through better ventilation appears to be a obvious safety choice during the pandemic. However, air quality alone is not enough to make the return-to-schools feel safe.

Holistic approach

“Schools are certainly very concerned about how they can open safely and how they can create an environment that’s effective for education and for students and teachers, but they need to think about it holistically.” says Khurana. “Many of these solutions are generally focused on health, wellness and security. Those have been needs in our school systems for a long time — Covid-19 has only accelerated them. Air quality can have a positive impact on overall student health, and enhanced video surveillance is important for keeping schools more comfortable, safe and secure.”

AI-enabled analytics

Video surveillance and analytics have been a growing force in smart commercial buildings for a wide variety of applications. For infection mitigation in schools, thermal cameras could be placed at entrances to identify students and staff who may be running a fever, then prevent entry to limit the number of infected people entering the facility. AI-enabled video analytics could also be used to recognise mask wearing and specifically identify those who break mask wearing rules. Furthermore, video analytics can alert staff when groups of students (or faculty) congregate in order to maintain social distancing protocols. While such technologies may be seen as draconian to many, pandemic safety could justify their increased use in schools.

IoT opportunities in educational facilities

Smart building technology has long seemed out-of-reach for school facilities running on tight budgets and cost pressures that force them to focus spending on direct learning elements such as teachers and educational supplies. The need for safe and healthy school environments during the pandemic, combined with the declining cost of IoT devices, may have created the opportunity to bring such technologies into the educational environment. Once the infrastructure is in place for virus mitigation, a range of new applications can emerge to increase student comfort, wellbeing, and productivity, just as we have seen for workers in office buildings, thereby opening the door to data-enabled, tech-rich, smart schools.

“Smart buildings do not eliminate the need for human ingenuity in the education sector; nothing can replace the creativity, compassion and empathy people need to continuously evolve schools and improve student outcomes,” says Dwight Stewart, founder and CIO of Igor. “But, smart buildings, and the technology that powers them, allow passionate educators to direct their talents where they have most impact – on the long-term health and wellness of their students.”


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