Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Thermal Scans and Temperature Checks

Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Thermal Scans and Temperature Checks

Schools and higher education institutions nationwide are still considering whether to return to in-person classrooms, continue remote learning, or offer a mix of options this fall as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Each of these options raises significant implications for student privacy and equity, but most reopening plans do not examine these concerns. The Future of Privacy Forum has developed a new issue brief series to raise awareness of the reopening issues that are keeping us up at night. Don’t miss our first issue on the student privacy issues with increased health data collection and storage by schools here.

Issue Brief: Thermal Scans and Temperature Checks

Temperature checks to help identify potential COVID-19 cases—conducted via no-contact infrared thermometers and increasingly with thermal cameras at large gathering places like airports, churches, grocery stores, and warehouses—have quickly become a part of public life during the pandemic. While these technologies are untested in a school setting, K-12 schools from California to Tennessee to Hawaii are nevertheless considering how to safely and efficiently implement temperature surveillance as a part of their reopening plans for the fall. Similarly, postsecondary institutions are working to determine the feasibility of complying with both CDC and ACHA recommendations to implement temperature testing for students and employees.

But how – if at all – do temperature checks help mitigate the spread of COVID-19? While some advocates argue they are a “totally non-invasive way to help keep people safe,” others, including the World Health Organization, are far more skeptical, describing the process as “flawed,” “imprecise” and “notoriously not accurate and reliable.”

This skepticism stems, in part, from the high likelihood of a false positive or negative. Thermal imaging cameras, which measure elevated skin temperature–versus oral temperature checks, which measure direct core body temperature–are often inaccurate, with a margin of error of +/- four degrees Fahrenheit and high sensitivity to the position of the camera and subject. Even a highly-accurate reading is often not helpful to identify potential cases, as a person’s temperature varies throughout the day for any number of reasons unrelated to COVID-19. Moreover, temperature checks have no guarantee of limiting the spread of COVID-19, as asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers have no fever yet can still infect others. In addition to these limitations, thermal camera readings are merely a proxy for core body temperature, as they measure elevated skin temperature. Schools and universities should, therefore, caution in taking action on an individual, unless confirmed by a more precise tool, such as an oral or “smart” thermometer.

The use of an automated thermal imaging camera or scanner to conduct temperature checks, while convenient, creates a myriad of privacy concerns, including the potential for bias or harm. For example, if someone walks through and gets alerted as having a temperature, other students may laugh at or bully that student. Also, this may force such a student to disclose on the spot an external reason for why they have a temperature in front of others. Many temperature cameras are equipped with facial recognition capabilities, a technology that has long been criticized for its inaccuracies and racial biases, and is especially problematic when used on young children with still-developing features or on students of color, particularly Black students. The widespread rollout of this technology in response to the pandemic also reverses recent movement by cities and companies to ban or limit the use of facial recognition. Many of these new thermal cameras are also completely unvetted, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declined to review the wave of new products rushed to market since the pandemic began.

Priced between $5,000 and $20,000 each, these new and untested cameras are a significant investment for schools and other institutions, which increases the likelihood that they will remain in use long after the pandemic is over. Even in the short-term, the potential for misuse is high. Will the cameras monitor the hallways during the day, or just the front door as students are arriving first thing in the morning? Will they have facial recognition built in? Will they be used to track discipline issues or just temperatures? Will parents, siblings, vendors, and other temporary on-campus guests be notified they are on camera? What mechanisms for consent and confidentiality will be put into place to ensure the protection of collected data through these cameras? Will students and their families have the right to opt-out of future camera use and surveillance (beyond COVID-19) or the right to redress in the event of misrepresentation or harm?

Schools must think critically about their policies and provide as much transparency as possible to students, families, employees, and other stakeholders regarding these decisions. Loss of trust can have severe impacts on the way in which students, parents, and employees interact with a school, as well as with each other. “Thermal cameras are still surveillance cameras,” after all, and despite their “dubious thermal measuring capabilities,” the more they become commonplace now, the more likely they will become a normal part of life into the future.

Schools are facing a wide range of difficult and expensive decisions as they prepare for this fall, and without clear guidance to date from federal authorities, they are responding in a variety of ways. For example, Massachusetts became one of the first places to note that temperature checks will not be conducted at schools in the state’s recently-released reopening guidelines, citing their ineffectiveness. However, halfway across the country, a Texas school board recently approved a $178,488 plan to purchase 52 infrared walk-through temperature scanners for its schools.

As schools continue to refine their plans, they should keep the protection of both student health and student privacy top of mind. As always, we welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you further. Please feel free to contact us here at any time.

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