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Wickliffe schools using wearable Bluetooth devices for COVID-19 contact tracing

Posted at 5:49 PM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-02 19:21:02-05

WICKLIFFE, Ohio — After a successful pilot earlier in the school year, the Wickliffe City School district expects to implement a new technology system at the high school to better assist administrators and public health officials with contact tracing. Created by New Jersey-based Volan Technology and approved by the local school board, the new system uses bluetooth-enabled ID badges and FOBs to determine which students were in close proximity to a COVID-19-positive student for extended periods of time.

The badges and fobs will only be activated while within the premises of the high school, which has been outfitted with "geo-fencing" technology. "Geo-fencing" uses GPS data to erect a digital "fence" around a certain property or place. Michael Bettua, the CEO and co-founder of Volan Technology, said the so-called Volan positioning system was developed in conjunction with experts in student and data privacy.

The system was initially developed to help school administrators to more quickly respond to potential emergencies. However, as the pandemic raged on, Bettua said the company adapted the technology to help boost contact tracing.

Because the system does not rely upon the GPS on a student's phone, it bypasses any potential privacy or security concerns in that regard. Additionally, the badges and FOBs only identify students through a unique number. Only administrators can access the individual data, which is stored locally.

Volan will not have access to the data, Bettua said.

"Will [this technology] stay like how airport security stayed after 9/11? Probably. We don't want to let our guard down again because there might be a future pandemic," Bettua said. "I think technologies like this are here to stay so we can be protected."

Wickliffe Superintendent Joseph Spiccia said he was drawn to the system because it accomplished two things: It ensured student privacy while also providing a more accurate way to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing.

"There is no concern about privacy because only when the students are in the building and only when they are wearing their badge can they be tracked," Spiccia said. "The second piece was a more efficient and more effective way to contact trace. Currently we have to depend on seating charts. We have to depend on memories and we have to depend on what other people think or thought. With this technology, there is less memory involved."

Bettua said the system has been developed in a way to limit potential false positives. By using CDC guidelines, the system is able to create a ranking of potential students who are most at risk of possible community spread.

"We based our scoring mechanism, our contact trace, on the room level risk, which the CDC says the most infectious area because of being in the same room with an infected person over a period of time," Bettua said. "The principal can say, 'here are the 20 kids that are the most exposed instead of the other 350 in different grades on different floors.' There is no reason to quarantine the whole school or grade."

Bettua said the system ends up costing less than the cost of one hot lunch per student per month. Even for large school districts, the system would cost less than $10,000 per month, depending on the number of students. Because Wickliffe agreed to take part in the pilot program, which outfitted 50 students with FOBs, the school district will not be charged for the system for the remainder of the school year.

"Our interest is is more about a future interest," Spiccia said. "We're rebuilding our entire campus as we speak. If something like this works the way we believe it will and the pricepoint is reasonable, we'll build it into our new facility."