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Back to School

December 5, 2021 by Alistair Enser

It’s going to be a big week. In the UK, students go back to school after many months away and universities follow soon afterwards. Clearly this presents challenges. But before I address these, let me take the opportunity to look again at the poll I ran last week, for its results are instructive as we consider the reopening of schools. Notwithstanding usual crime and cybersecurity, COVID-19 is the leading risks for organisations according to respondents, and nearly one in two (45%) ranked it as the highest threat. Given what is ahead of us, remote working – and, as I will argue later, remote learning – could be with us for a while, so we need to make sure what we are doing is secure.

School’s back – forever?

The rules surrounding this week’s reopening of schools and universities are overwhelming in their scope and come months after teachers’ requests for guidance, and only a few days before schools reopen. Official advice on how to restrict infection in schools covers a range of responses, based on four tiers. Rota systems are encouraged, while bubbles of students across classes and even year groups will help to keep the virus at bay.

One of the biggest changes is the mandatory use of facemasks in schools where there are children in years seven or above. While it is now thought that children and teenagers do indeed spread the virus like adults, the decision to insist on wearing facemasks is controversial. Will facemask use by students be distracting? Just wearing one to visit shops I myself have seen how a facemask can make interaction difficult. Reading people’s thoughts in a learning environment clearly will be more difficult as a result.

The university of life

It’s a slightly different picture for universities. I have a son at university and, having spoken to his friends at other universities, he tells me that a large proportion will be taught virtually, using the same tools that businesses have relied on over the last few months. Indeed, the UK’s Sage group recently recommended that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involved practical training or lab work.

The challenges faced on university campuses are, if anything, more pronounced than those at schools, where students tend to be drawn from local areas. A university campus will have many more students, drawn from a wider demographic, and attending that university from all parts of the world. Some businesses that rely on students for much of their trade in places like Manchester are hopeful, yet concerned, about the arrival of thousands of students.

A winter of discontent?

Today could be the coldest August Bank Holiday in the UK on record according to the Met Office. And, as we leave summer and approach winter, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already warned of potential national lockdowns if the infection rate rises during a season that already brings flus and colds.

The cold is being felt elsewhere, in chilling economic forecasts. HM Treasury recently forecasted an average 10% reduction in GDP in 2020. And with GDP forecasted to return to a positive 6% in 2012, it is clear we will still have much catching up to do to get back to the level of economic activity pre-COVID-19.

And, in its August forecast, the Treasury estimates that unemployment rate will reach 8% in 2020, a massive increase on the 3% reported at the end of June. In 2012 the Treasury believes that unemployment will dip back to 6%. Even for Britain’s flexible labour market, this is a huge increase.

The current economic forecasts are concerning, and there is understandable worry about student’s returning to schools universities for, if infections rates rise and they are forced to self-isolate at home, the impact on parents who have just returned to the workplace is unclear.

Looking through the gloom

What are the answers to the challenges we face? Once again, it’s down to technology, procedures, preparation and flexibility. But the ability to respond to situations urgently and decisively as they emerge is key. This agility will become more important as our situation threatens to change dynamically and at great speed.

In terms of technology, I noticed that the man posted to the door of a local petrol station and who previously let one person in and one person out, has been replaced by a simple traffic light system, where a green light indicates that it is safe to enter. Although it’s a simple people counting system, it’s an excellent example of using technology to get a greater and immediate return beyond the initial investment, as it frees up workers to do more useful tasks while still keeping shoppers safe.

Or consider how data on how and where people move around a building could help facilities managers in schools, universities or offices assign their cleaning operations, ensuring that the most used parts of their estates are cleaned first, while those that are unused are a lower priority.

At a time when students must catch up with six months of education and budgets are under pressure schools and universities can ill afford to invest money in extra measures, so this type of time and cost saving technology is surely going to be beneficial. I talked about the role of technology in precisely these types of applications in my latest podcast for Security Matters, which can be found here.

At Reliance High-Tech, security is our core, but innovation and the ability to harness value beyond security is becoming more and more important in our quest to fight this modern day plague.

Finally, there is of course another way of viewing the return to schools. If they manage to both keep infection at bay, and can continue the vital education of students without it being overly disrupted, then it will provide a very clear green light for organisations of all types. If it works for them, it’s a green light for all of us. And that would be a very good thing.

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