After months of strict lockdown, children in the UK will return to school on Monday next week. Similar “return-to-learn” plans are being rolled out in countries across Europe, in many US states, and in nations across the world in order to limited the negative impacts of disrupted education on childrens’ development. However, as the pandemic still rages around the world, there is significant concern about schools becoming hotbeds of virus transmission, putting children and their more vulnerable older family members in danger. Smart building technology is now presenting viable ways to return children to school while minimizing the health risks.
“Keeping schools closed comes with massive, long-term individual and societal costs. Many children cannot effectively learn, grow, engage, socialize, 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 recognize 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.”
Just as in the commercial real estate sector where the IoT has seen greatest adoption, smart building technologies can be implimented in schools to improve health and safety, among other applications. Schools are just buildings afterall, albeit with different stakeholders, a majority of younger occupants, often tighter budgets, and a greater focus on education than we see in most other buildings. 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. UVC light has been used for more than 40 years in disinfecting drinking water, wastewater, pharmaceuticals, and surfaces against a whole suite of human pathogens. 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.
“Coils are basically your conduit or your infrastructure in the building that takes your cold and hot airflow through the building. Various types of particle matter and pathogens can collect on those coils over time, so as the air circulates, it gets exposed to that over and over again. When you put UV light inside the coils, that radiation has the ability to basically kill those pathogens and other harmful particles because of its properties,” says Himanshu Khurana, CTO of Honeywell Building Solutions. “Given an adequate amount of exposure, the UV light can affect the air that’s flowing out there and kill pathogens. That also helps reduce the number of harmful particles that are circulating through the building.”
Air quality in general has 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 saftey choice during the pandmic. However, air quality alone is not enough to make the return-to-schools feel safe.
“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.”
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 recognize 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.
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 healthly 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 infrastucture 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.”