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Going back to school amid COVID-19 outbreaks means uncertainty and fear for students and teachers, but staying home presents problems too.

USA TODAY

DETROIT — Special police patrols in student-heavy neighborhoods. Smartphone apps monitoring location inside a bubble. Daily check-in forms.

As hundreds of thousands of students arrive back on campuses across the country, college and university administrators are greeting them with a variety of methods to monitor behavior and discourage large gatherings, all in an effort to keep the students healthy and on campus.

Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina have recently shut down face-to-face instruction after large gatherings led to COVID clusters. Syracuse University’s leaders last week said large gatherings had left the school on the verge of shutting down and going online-only.

Even as administrators are coming up with plans, students are pushing back, saying they are invasions of privacy.

They’ve seen some success. At Oakland University in suburban Detroit, a plan to mandate all students wear BioButtons was changed to strongly recommend wearing the health tracker after student complaints.

“Many students are already hesitant, at best, to be tracked as they stay on campus (and as they leave for the weekend to visit home, go to class, grocery shop, etc.),” a petition from Oakland students that garnered more than 2,400 signatures this summer said. “Masks and socially distancing are understandable … but this seems like a large overreach in terms of student and staff privacy.”

The BioButton is worn by the user and connected to an app on a smartphone. It constantly measures heart rate and temperature, among other things.

“We are strongly encouraging a BioButton to be worn because it enhances our broader strategy to monitor the safety of OU’s campus,” Oakland’s website said. “We believe it is among the many ways we are keeping you and others safe. However, even if you don’t want to wear the BioButton, there is value in carrying it with you when you are on campus because it can assist with contact tracing.”

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The BioButton is designed to work as a screening tool for Oakland, said David Stone, Oakland’s chief research officer and a professor of health sciences and philosophy.

It will monitor the wearer’s breathing rate, heart rate and temperature when the person is at rest. Using artificial intelligence, it will see when there’s a pattern of changes that could indicate an infection. People on campus will also have to answer a series of screening questions each day.

Once a day, the system will send Oakland a screen noting the person is green — OK to be on campus — or red, meaning follow-up from the school’s health services is needed. It will send similar updates every 6 hours to the individual user through an app on their phone.

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“All the university will see is the cleared/not cleared status,” Stone said. The school will not see the actual data from an user.

The button won’t track location but will know when it is around another user wearing a button. That’s useful in contact tracing. The school hopes the button will help them not have big outbreaks that some other schools are seeing.

A smartphone tracker

Some universities are going with less intrusive monitoring apps.

At the University of Tennessee, students on campus will be required to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms each day before leaving their dorms using an app that asks questions about their temperature, any symptoms and if they have been exposed to anyone who is known to have COVID-19. Faculty and staff are also required to do this when they are on campus.

At Ohio State University, students and employees will be required to report their body temperature and health status through a mobile app before coming on campus each day.

When students at Michigan’s Albion College first heard about being required to download an app before coming onto campus, they thought it was just an easy way to schedule COVID-19 tests and then get the results.

It wasn’t long before they learned they had to also turn on a location tracker, which monitors when they leave a several-mile bubble.

“I felt betrayed by Albion,” said junior Alexis De La Cruz, an economic major in quarantine at Albion, waiting for her COVID test to come back. “It’s like Albion doesn’t trust us to practice social distancing.”

About 97% of the school’s students live on campus.

The app is part of the small liberal arts college’s multiprong approach to the semester, which includes lots of education for students, said Mathew Johnson, the school’s new president. The app allows the school to push out educational material to students, but also includes a geotracking feature, built to help with contact tracing.

It also notifies the school when a student leaves a predefined boundary, which is about a 4.5-mile circle around the campus, about 95 miles west of Detroit.

The boundary includes the entire city, meaning students can leave campus. It also includes a nature area and other nearby spots.

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If a student wants to leave the bubble boundary, they can apply for a waiver.

De La Cruz says she has seen friends be denied to work outside of the bubble. She also says it will be tough to see her family during the school year.

If a student leaves without permission, their student ID is deactivated, which means they can’t get back into college buildings. In order to get it reactivated, the student would have to speak with a staff member. That conversation would be educational and also to make sure the student practiced safe social distancing and mask wearing, Johnson said. If there were repeated violations, the student could go through the normal student justice system, which includes due process. It could lead to a suspension or more.

Several schools in Michigan are using some sort of app to monitor students’ health. For example, at Eastern Michigan University, student workers were set up at the entrance of buildings during summer school and will be again during fall classes. Anyone coming in will have to show on their smartphone how they completed the form; paper forms will also be available.

Parent Michael Coleman, 53, of Ypsilanti has a son at Eastern and a daughter at Albion. He wonders what will happen with all the data being collected.

“Is there some database somewhere that someone can hack and get all the data?” he asked. “I understand they want to keep everyone safe, but it seems like they are starting to go overboard.”

Police patrols

In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan isn’t relying just on technology. The school is also sending police officers — both from the university and the city — into student-heavy neighborhoods.

The Ann Arbor Police Department said it is teaming up with U-M students, staff, faculty and volunteers to patrol campus and neighborhoods around the university to “serve as a visible presence and reminder to students and other community members of the need to follow public health guidance,” the department said in a tweet.

It comes as the Washtenaw County Health Department tightens restrictions on the number of people who are allowed to gather outdoors in the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, home to U-M and Eastern, respectively.

“COVID-19, large gatherings and harmful alcoholic behavior are all concerns this year,” the police department tweeted.

“It’s not really an extension of the police or something,” U-M President Mark Schlissel told the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, in a recent interview. “So, you’ll undoubtedly forget on some occasions to pull your mask over your face as you walk from some part that’s off campus onto campus, or as you rush out of your apartment or a student rushes out of their dorm room. So, these are people that are just going to remind you, and we’re hoping that a lot of enforcement really comes from changing norms.

“Students who fail to come into compliance when they’re partying in town after multiple admonitions and many different tiered levels of reminders ultimately will be brought into the student code pathway or receive a citation that will be very expensive to them,” Schlissel said. “But that’s the last resort.”

Detroit Free Press staff writer Kristen Jordan Shamus contributed to this report. 

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