Universities Use IoT to Ensure Student Safety

After a rocky fall term plagued by COVID-19 outbreaks and temporary lockdowns, colleges are evaluating how to successfully bring students back to campus—if not yet to the classroom—for the next semester.

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Image credit: iWave

As college students wrap up their studies this winter, colleges and universities will be gearing up for the spring semester. Much of that will center around logistics to keep returning students safe, healthy, and engaged amid the pandemic.

The basics are familiar now. Most universities are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urge people to wear masks and social distance on campus. Universities have established contact tracing and self-testing protocols, restricted student work areas, moved classrooms outside, increased cleaning of high-touch points, and installed hand sanitizer stands near building entrances, restrooms, and eating areas. Even more COVID-19 precautions will be implemented behind the scenes.

Bring Outside Air Inside                                                                                                      

Upgrades to building HVAC systems is at the top of the list. Bringing more fresh air into campus buildings is a top priority. Indoor air quality sensors that tie back into the building’s HVAC system not only confirm that the filtration systems are working properly, they also support dynamic ventilation. Carbon dioxide sensors indicate capacity and adjust air flow as needed, says Steve Stachorek, president and CEO of Atomatic Mechanical Services. “It monitors CO2 and that tells the building automation system how many people are in the space and when to bring in more outside air,” he says.

Improving indoor air quality is critical. Stachorek suggests universities, like other building owners, also install bi-polar ionizers, such as iWave, developed by Nu-Calgon. The iWave uses charged ions to attach to pollutants and activate pathogens, including those that cause COVID-19. “That will be a huge benefit for classrooms because now you’re attacking the virus in the space it’s in instead of trying to filter it,” Stachorek says.

Device showing air quality in a room

Image credit: Nu-Calgon

Monitor Public Spaces

University COVID-19 testing protocols were all over the map in the fall but for the spring semester, more testing is common. The University of Illinois last fall was one of the first to develop its own saliva-based test for students, who are required to test every four days. The results are linked to the student’s ID, which doubles as a key card for building access. Students who forget to test or who test positive for COVID-19 are denied access to all buildings except their dorm. In January, University of Wisconsin will follow a similar plan.

Online classes were common for the fall term, mitigating the potential spread in packed lecture halls. Some smaller classes and labs are expected to meet in person, and students can reserve study spaces on most campuses. 

To ensure students have enough space and limits are not breached, schools can install people-counting sensors to monitor student movement within a building, zone, or room.  Thermal sensors, room occupancy sensors, and under-desk sensors such as those from IAconnects can check how frequently people are in a specific location and whether they are six feet apart.

Student Life, COVID-Style

One of the biggest challenges has been student dining. Students typically select food from different stations and swipe their digital ID cards to pay. That flexibility has been diminished due to COVID-19. Schools are limiting where students can get food, and grab-and-go meal options will be the norm as seating has been removed or reduced.

Use of online apps is also increasing. New York University has established NYU GrubHub accounts where students can view menus and order meals for pick up or delivery. Santa Clara University is developing a mobile ordering app, so students can pick up food from its dining halls.

In the wake of the pandemic, many college construction projects have been put on hold. Initial site assessments are no longer valid as universities rethink classroom models, dining areas, dorm rooms, and shared bathrooms. Flexible configurations, including rooms that can be subdivided and furniture with anti-microbial surfaces, are under consideration.