District considering testing beacons that would track students' social distancing

Posted at 2:55 PM, Jun 08, 2020

A controversial return-to-school plan in Ohio is raising concerns.

New Albany-Plain Local Schools says it’s considering helping the company Volan test electronic beacons that would track students’ locations throughout the day. The idea is to monitor social distancing and alert those who may have been in the same room as someone who ends up testing positive for the coronavirus.

A representative for the district says the school corporation hasn’t yet decided whether they want to test the technology in the schools and if they did, there would be no surveillance.

“It does not know where students sit in each classroom, nor who they meet or talk to. It only knows who is in a room,” wrote Patrick Gallaway, the district’s Director of Communications.

Still, some are concerned about the consequences of incorporating this type of technology into schools.

“We’re really worried they're using an unproven technology that may not help us track COVID-19 but will create another way for the school to accelerate the school's prison pipeline,” said Albert Fox Cahn with the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Cahn says this is troublesome on many levels.

“When schools take this information, when government agencies take it, it then becomes vulnerable to law enforcement and other agencies to swoop in, get a court order and require that they hand that information over,” said Cahn.

Cahn points to contact tracing as the only proven method to prevent virus spread. He says beacon tracking creates a new device sales opportunity for the tech industry. He says this sort of tracking isn't evidence-based and it has flaws.

Cahn is worried about how the devices could contribute to what he says is a history of criminalizing students of color. He’s urging parents to push back and ask for peer reviewed evidence and privacy safeguards.

The superintendent of New Albany-Plain Local Schools plans on addressing the possibility of testing the technology in the district at a Monday night school board meeting.

If the district moves forward with the proposed technology, Gallaway says it would only be used in two halls of one building this summer, without students on campus.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the program could track who students interacted with, but the school says it would only be able to tell which classroom the student is in.