The back-to-school preparations at the Sharyland Independent School District in southern Texas this year include a variety of supplies now common in daily life during the pandemic: plastic dividers, masks and hand sanitizer.
They also include something not as common: body temperature screening terminals.
The district, which serves about 10,200 students across 13 campuses, spent more than $178,000 on 52 walk-through infrared temperature scanners from SafeCheck USA, a Miami-based company that launched about six months ago. The school district made the purchase without testing the technology after watching a demonstration over Zoom, Assistant Superintendent Ismael Gonzalez said.
“We are looking forward to reopening our schools. We miss our students,” he said, noting that the school district had been “flooded” with pitches for new Covid-19 mitigation tools.
Body temperature checks have emerged in recent months as one of the more advanced and passive coronavirus mitigation techniques, with tripods mounting infrared cameras now a common sight at the entrances of buildings.
But just how well temperature checks work remains unclear, and epidemiologists caution that mass temperature screening systems do little to detect people infected with the coronavirus and that they could make people less safe by giving the false impression that Covid-19 is not present.
“In the context of schools, fever screening is a particularly bad idea,” said Katelyn Gostic, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, who studies the use of symptom screening systems for catching infectious diseases.
“Fever screening only works if you have a fever. And we know that a lot of infections in children and young people seem to be asymptomatic or mild enough that you might not have a fever for several days, even though you’re contagious, or you might never develop a fever at all,” Gostic said.
That has not stopped companies, many newly formed or with little track record in temperature detection technology, to join in the rush to pitch lucrative contracts to schools, offering fever checks, contact tracing and other safety services. A handful of companies have pivoted from selling gun detection systems to selling temperature screening systems to meet demand and prevent the spread of the coronavirus on school campuses.
Many of the systems being marketed to schools are not vetted by the Food and Drug Administration — the agency relaxed its rules in April to allow broader use of devices for temperature screening — nor independently tested as being accurate at detecting fevers, let alone symptoms that arise from Covid-19. Yet school districts across the country are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, often using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, on the systems in the hope that they will help mitigate the spread of the virus.
SafeCheck USA’s co-founder William Kakon did not respond to questions about the experts’ concerns over the technology’s accuracy. He said the system had been tested by third parties but declined to provide details.
Other school districts have also spent considerable amounts of money on similar systems.
In the Dothan City School District in Alabama, administrators opted to buy 23 fever screening systems for a total of $400,000, which are being set up at the entrances of the district’s 17 campuses serving around 8,000 students. The district made the purchase before testing the systems, said acting Superintendent Dennis Coe, the district’s chief operations officer.
The school board of Fayette County in Georgia was reported to have approved the purchase of up to 75 temperature check cameras made by Hikvision — a Chinese company the Trump administration placed on a trade blacklist in October for its role in the surveillance of China’s Muslim minority — for up to $525,000. Elsewhere in Alabama, the Baldwin County School District spent nearly $1 million to buy 144 Hikvision cameras, NBC affiliate WPMI of Mobile reported.
The appeal, said Shawn Van Scoy, the superintendent of the Gananda Central School District in New York, is preventing congestion at the start of the day. The Gananda district also bought a set of Hikvision cameras to screen for fevers.
“Everything is cumbersome when we are trying to get a thousand kids in school in the morning,” Van Scoy said. “This will allow us to assess 40 students every minute as they enter the doors of our building.”