Universities are tasked with contact tracing collecting data, and enforcing distancing protocols as they follow health and safety recommendations

How technology is helping to keep campuses safe during COVID-19

Universities are tasked with contact tracing collecting data, and enforcing distancing protocols as they follow health recommendations

As campus CIOs consider how technology can help keep stakeholders safe from COVID-19, here’s a look at how some innovative colleges and universities are approaching this challenge.

Mobile apps and contact tracing

Roosevelt University in Chicago has created new features within its mobile campus app to help keep users safe from coronavirus.

Built quickly and easily using tools from the no-code Modo platform, the app not only contains real-time information about lab and computer availability, forms to ask questions and report sanitizer outages, and a self-assessment tool — but IT staff have also built an automated process to help with contact tracing if someone should test positive.

“As the Dean of our College of Pharmacy noted, we essentially created an electronic medical record system — of the kind that people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for — from scratch in just a few weeks,” said Assistant Vice President of Web Development Aaron Rester.

Students and employees are required to take the self-assessment each day and show the results on their phone to the campus safety officers positioned at the entrance of each building. The questions on the self-assessment form were determined by university medical experts, based on CDC guidance. If anyone reports any symptoms, they aren’t allowed on campus that day.

Rester’s team has also built an automated process using Microsoft PowerApps and PowerAutomate that filters the self-assessment data, automatically notifies campus officials if any concerns are identified, and feeds the data into a desktop app that can be used for contact tracing if necessary. The app displays the course schedule for students identified at risk, so administrators can quickly see who they might have come into contact with — allowing contact tracing to happen almost immediately.

“The faster we have this information, the more likely we are to stop the spread of the virus on our campus,” Rester says.

The university has about 600 students and employees on campus this fall. Through the end of October, there have been six confirmed cases among residential students, 18 among non-residential students, and three faculty cases.

Reducing density in key campus locations

Baylor University, the University of Rochester, and UC San Diego are among the institutions using crowd monitoring technology from a startup company called Occuspace to help promote social distancing on their campuses this fall.

Sensors plug into a wall outlet and track the number of people in a building using WiFi and Bluetooth signals. With this information, campus staff can manage occupancy limits — and students can use a free mobile app to see how crowded spaces are in real time before they visit.

Baylor University is using the solution to reduce the density of students and staff within its library and dining spaces.

In the library, capacity has been reduced by about half, to 900 people, says David Burns, associate vice president for Library and Academic Technology Services at Baylor. “Many areas of the building aren’t staffed regularly, and we saw this as a way to keep tabs on occupancy,” he says.

When students or staff enter the library, they now see a digital screen that displays in real time what the occupancy is on each floor, so users can see which floors are the least occupied. Occuspace says its algorithms can calculate population density with more than 90 percent accuracy.

Members of the campus community can also see this information within an app called Waitz before they leave their dorm room or apartment, so they can make a more informed decision about whether to go then — or wait for an opportunity that’s less crowded.

“We have facilities staff keeping an eye on the occupancy figures as well, to make sure they don’t pass a certain threshold,” Burns says. “This tool has helped us focus our walkthroughs to make sure everyone is socially distancing safely.”

Data dashboards and data-informed planning

At Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., IT staff have developed an automated COVID-19 Dashboard, which provides the community with a round-the-clock analysis of the risk of contracting COVID-19 on campus. Built within Tableau Public, a platform for visualizing data, the dashboard pulls information from a Google Sheet that is updated daily by campus staff — and it displays risk status levels established by public health officials and Rollins’ emergency operations team for various communities on campus: green, yellow, orange, and red.

Campus leaders will use these indicators to inform their decisions during the academic year in consultation with Orange County Public Health Department Epidemiologist Jennifer Finnegan, says Director of Institutional Analytics Meghal Parikh.

To further reduce the risk to its campus community, the college requires students to use the #CampusClear app daily. This free app, created by artificially intelligent chatbot developer Ivy.ai in conjunction with Creighton University and Stony Brook University, walks students through daily self-screenings and directs them to seek care immediately if they show any COVID-19 symptoms.

Technology has also played a key role in Rollins’ music department reopening this fall. The Department of Physics partnered with the Department of Music to determine how far the breath from musicians spreads during performance. Using a process developed at Rollins, members of the physics department made videos showing how far musicians’ breathing propagates when they sing or play an instrument — and the music department has used this information to establish safe shielding and social distancing during performance.

Rollins College CIO Troy Thomason is a regular member of the college’s Emergency Operations Team, which has coordinated the institution’s emergency response throughout the pandemic. He has also been very involved in the planning process for bringing students, faculty, and staff back to campus safely this fall.

“It’s important for CIOs to be key contributors in the decision-making process,” he says. “Technology plays such a vital role in everything we do within higher education, and we’re accustomed to finding innovative solutions to unexpected challenges.”