MISSION — Among the host of challenges schools are expected to solve before children return to in-person class this August is just how exactly to identify students who may be infected with COVID-19, and how to keep them from spreading the virus to the rest of the student body.
The Sharyland school board voted last week to spend $178,488 on a high-tech effort they believe may help to accomplish that goal, purchasing 52 walk-through infrared temperature scanners the district plans to deploy at the entrance of every campus and some other district offices.
In theory, every student will pass through the scanners when they arrive in the morning and the district will know whether a student has a fever before they reach a classroom.
At present, it doesn’t appear that Texas Education Agency guidelines will mandate districts taking this step.
According to draft guidelines released last week, TEA indicated that students and teachers should be required to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms every morning by the district. TEA further indicated that the district should screen all students at the beginning of every week for symptoms.
The draft guidance did not recommend regularly checking the temperature of asymptomatic students, but also didn’t prohibit it. Sharyland ISD Superintendent Maria Vidaurri said the board decided daily temperature checks would likely be a prudent measure for the fall semester.
“Right now we just want to make sure that we capitalize on all the safety measures possible,” she said. “We just have to be sure that our staff and our students are safe. It’s just one of the things that we will be doing.”
Other pandemic supplies the district has or is planning to obtain include thousands of face masks and gloves, dozens of handheld thermometers, at least 288 gallons of hand sanitizer and face shields for the schools’ nurses.
So far, the walkthrough scanners are the most high-tech tool the district has invested in to fight the pandemic. Such an option may be the only feasible way to take the temperature of the over 10,000 students who attend school at Sharyland ISD.
“In the conversations that we’ve had, in the event that we have to take each student’s temperature when they walk into the door, that’s 700 kids and we have one nurse typically on staff at each campus,” district CFO Ismael Gonzalez said at a board workshop earlier this month. “The discussion has been there that we would have to probably hire more nurses.”
In contrast, the new scanners should be able to scan students at a rate of 70 per minute, less than a second apiece.
The district considered other high-tech options, but at $3,394 per scanner, they were too affordable to pass up.
“iPads that you put your face in, there’s drones that go through crowds, there’s a camera that you can put right in the front that checks you, but cost effective wise, this is the best solution,” Gonzalez said.
There were some concerns over student privacy. The machines display temperatures and will beep when someone with a fever walks through, and although Gonzalez confirmed that the scanners are HIPAA compliant, trustee Julio Cerda wondered whether they would lead to bullying.
“So the guy that is 99.9, everybody behind him is going to be laughing at him. You know kids, you know third graders, fourth graders … So are we ready for that?” he said.
Administrators suggested that if that became an issue, the machines could likely be positioned in a way to conceal the reading and make the process more discrete.
Vidaurri said that if the district is going to effectively fight the pandemic, scanners like the ones it bought earlier this month and other solutions, everything from hand sanitizer to no-touch sinks, become invaluable tools.
The superintendent sees many of those tools, including the scanners, sticking around long after the pandemic ebbs.
“Moving forward, a lot of the feedback we’re getting is once we get past this pandemic, what things like this are going to do for us and one of the biggest things we’ve always had an issue with is when flu season comes, it’s having temperatures and us being able to catch that ahead, before we get hit during the week,” she said at the workshop meeting.