The COVID pandemic has changed much about how we live and how we work. Nowhere is this more evident than in our schools – in how we safely teach our students and how our students learn, safely. The challenge with schools is that, from a safety perspective, educational institutions were already under siege.
Consider the following: According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more than 3,200 fires each year in schools in the U.S. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, there are roughly 115 school bus incidents involving fatalities each year. Of course, most people don’t realize this because this information is overshadowed by the 180 school shootings in the U.S. from 2009-2018, according to CNN.
And now – in 2021 – we have inserted the impact of a global pandemic into this already-volatile situation, with almost no suggestions or assistance to these schools regarding how to safely re-open and keep our school campuses open.
Fortunately, there are many ways that technology can help in this area. And while this pandemic is not a good thing, there are a number of learnings we can take away from these times that have relevance long after this pandemic is gone. It all begins with asking the right questions.
Because of COVID, schools are facing challenges on two fronts. First, there is the challenge of keeping students, teachers, and staff safe when they come to school campuses. Second, there is the separate challenge of educating students who are not on campuses, but are at home learning remotely. To compound this second challenge, often we see schools offering a choice to their students – learn in class, or learn at home. Given these options, we now see some students attending school, while other students stay at home. And the school is responsible for both sides of this equation.
Given our personal experiences seeing neighborhood children riding bikes, playing on playgrounds, and just hanging out in the neighborhood, it is clear that these young people are not exactly social distancing themselves. Because of this, the ‘safe bubble’ that some schools try to create develops a dangerous leak every day after school ends. And that becomes the challenge. They have no control over this, or over what their students may bring to the classroom.
Therefore, the question we – as technologists – ask ourselves is simply this: How do we create safer campuses for schools concerned with shootings, fires, bullying, gas leaks, weather events, and now a global pandemic, when they barely have enough money to upgrade phone systems or install new clocks or new bell systems?
The solution for these challenges is an intelligent, focused use of AI technologies that are designed to detect incidents or events and make predictions regarding likely outcomes and actions. And by events, this can mean a host of various incidents. A student carrying a gun. Smoke in the restroom. A fire in the chemistry lab. Students gathering in a small area. Faculty congregating too closely. Students with a temperature coming to school. All of these are events that today’s technology can detect.
AI technologies “see” these events and make predictions as to what is happening using machine learning. In other words, we can teach technology to look for a gun, to “sniff out” that smoke or vape, to “realize” people are too close to one another. Sensors that detect smoke, temperature changes, motion, proximity, and gunshots are available today – although gunshot detection is sort of an “after-the-fact” identification. That’s why AI technologies that can detect a weapon before it has even been fired is far better.
The key to deploying these technologies, however, is just as important as the technologies themselves, particularly when we are talking about guns.
For example, many schools consider metal detectors an acceptable deterrent to bringing a gun to school. And while that is a good start, the problem with this mindset is that it assumes that someone who has decided to break the law (by bringing and using a weapon) is going to obey the law by entering only through officially designated areas.
As another example, a student who is bringing a weapon to school is not the ‘lone wolf’ we like to portray – one who simply snaps. No, these students don’t snap. They plan! They look for surveillance devices, staying out of their way or disarming them. They look for fire alarms to activate in order to get more targets in the hallways. So the key is to hide these sensors, these cameras powered by AI technologies, in plain sight. Hide them in speakers in the ceiling. Hide them in clocks. In EXIT signs. In display monitors on the walls. You don’t want this technology to be “obviously visible.” Embedding it into technology students (and teachers) are familiar with, and comfortable with, effectively hides the technology – allowing it to do its job.
Once detected, now the communications and notifications begin. Security or police can be notified of someone with a gun – complete with video of the area. A principal or security person can be notified of students smoking in the bathroom before the students are aware they have been caught. A fire that breaks out in the chemistry lab should not just initiate a general alarm. That alarm should be both visual and audible – and intelligent enough to route students and staff away from that hallway – even though there is an EXIT at the end of that hallway. And a student with a fever can be identified quickly with a photograph so school staff can intervene and potentially send that student home in the middle of a pandemic.
Again, this technology exists today, and is far less expensive than you might realize if implemented intelligently. Embedding AI technologies into a typical school day will create safer, smarter schools – and that’s what we want for everyone.
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