Schools can be made safe

Schools can be made safe
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It was the sight of a young teacher, dressed like a welder in a space suit, aiming a temperature checking gun at the temple of a petrified six-year-old entering the school gates, that really got me thinking. There has got to be a better way.

Lockdown had just begun and the children of essential workers and NHS staff were still going to school. You could see the anxiety written all over the teacher’s face, and the youngster was not much better. As a headteacher at a senior London boys’ school for ten years I knew the importance of that early morning contact with your pupils. A shake of the hand was the usual greeting – but now no longer possible. The follow-up welcoming look into the eye would generally calm the student; now, masked by personal protective equipment, the teacher was all but cut-off from that important first contact.

ASIS Education, a small services company operating in the UK and the Far East for the past seven years, had concentrated its efforts in recruiting students, assessing them, and providing international schools with the best that British education could offer. We knew that Covid-19 would have a serious impact on our core business, not least of all because the media projection of the UK’s inability to get schools and universities back to business was creating a very negative impression in the international market. We had two choices: accept it and see years of hard work down the drain, or pivot to provide what educational institutions really needed to become safe places for children and students to return to.

We knew there had to be a solution out there that could use facial recognition and thermal imaging technology to read temperatures, accurately and quickly. Critically, it had to be non-touch, meaning that teachers could step, socially-distanced, away from the front line. Keeping students, teachers and other school staff safe had to be a priority.

We also wanted a software solution that would integrate with all of the other systems schools to use to ensure compliance with Health & Safety regulations, especially safeguarding.

When I took the role of school headteacher there were around 70 key regulations we had to abide by. By the time I left there were over 400. A large number of those concerned child protection and insurance that no unsupervised student contact could be had by an adult with any kind of Police ‘record’.

Added to this, children at school, by law, have to be registered twice daily. A solution that checked their temperatures twice daily and recorded their attendance at the same time would save hours of teacher time. Integrating visitor and contractor management, with accurate records as the Inspectorates demand, would be an ideal solution.

As I write, guidance offered by the UK Government’s Ofsted School Inspectors is clear that no person should be allowed entry into an educational institution showing any signs of Covid-19. One of the most obvious features is of course a high temperature. My experience is that it is only a matter of time before ‘guidance’ becomes ‘mandatory’, and adds to the 400+ requirements on school leaders.

The ASIS team took up the challenge to find a solution. Although complex, we tried to keep the steps as simple as possible. The task before us was like making a giant jigsaw fit together. We needed thermal imaging software along with a state-of-the-art camera. We needed facial recognition software and a programme to record results. We needed that software to run off a system that would allow all the integration described above. Although there may be more basic solutions, schools are notorious for getting software projects in a mess. If something could do the multiple jobs required, that would be both cost and time-efficient in the long run.

Our newly appointed Director of Technology Development, Yehia Oweiss, who has been integrating systems for over 20 years, quickly identified a lead partner: Image Holders Ltd, a Bournemouth based company mostly supplying the commercial sector. They have a reputation for developing visitor management kiosks across the western world and had most of the core ingredients in place already. Our Taiwan-based software developers could manage the integration with schools’ Management Information Systems and Registration Systems.

The outstanding piece was the tablet, off which the system would run. The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 i5 had the perfect specification. But could schools’ afford it?

We approached Microsoft directly and asked for help. There was instant recognition that our solution could be a life-saver in schools and could help overcome the serious problems school managements were facing in getting ready to welcome back all of their pupils in September. We did not want to become a ‘reseller’ with the mighty company; we wanted them to partner with us. The team at Microsoft immediately saw that the solution we were proposing would provide an assurance to anxious parents – and children in some cases – that their school was free of Covid-19 carriers. The company cares about academic progress and has countless products of use in the school and university setting. Here was a chance for them to get alongside a product that could demonstrate their concern about school community welfare, not just learning.

With the jigsaw beginning to take shape, one major issue remained. In the UK setting, ‘kiosks’ are usually places where youngsters can go to buy ‘tuck’, not check their temperature or sanitise their hands.

Our marketing team sat on it for a while and contemplated, as marketers often do when they are stumped. “ It’s going to act like a School Guardian,” said one. “ It’s like a station you go to for something you need.” That was it. The ‘School Guardian: Health & Safety Station’ was born.

Brilliant work by the Image Holders team quickly created new marketing collateral with the School Guardian: Health & Safety Station branding. Digital marketing through Linked In and an extensive mailing list accessed by ASIS Education was prepared. The Schools & Academies Show organisers – the biggest education fair in the country – agreed to install the Stations to protect entrants to their show this November. Private school groups and organisations responded in a similar fashion. It seems that the product perfectly meets the needs of school managers and university administrators.

Recently, I joined a panel of business leaders pulled together by HSBC to discuss the pandemic, its impact on our businesses and how we have responded. The moderator asked what each of us had learned during the lockdown period. It was interesting to hear the unanimity of responses, from a wide range of hospitality, engineering, consultancy and education businesses. We pretty much all said the same thing: we learned to adapt – very quickly. It was the pace of adapting that surprised us. As one participant put it: “ I learned in three months what under normal conditions I might have taken three years to get hold of. The explosion in experience has been an amazing – and very positive – experience.”

If we ‘old hands’ can learn quickly, I am very hopeful that our nation’s teachers and their students can learn quickly too. My over-arching experience as the Headteacher was that when you hold out high expectations for your students, they rise to the challenge.

As parents, teachers, and the wider community face the uncertainty of schools re-opening in September, I would hope that they overcome the paralysis of fear, exercise their creativity, and take some imaginative, yet practical, steps. The technology exists to help schools stay safe. Without a doubt, it is possible for the spirit of joy of school life to return. Protected by some highly innovative technology.

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