Track and Trace: The next, new normal in Higher Education

Posted by Daniel Barrass on September 1, 2020

The events of 2020 have rapidly shaped the way the world lives, works, and learns and getting staff and students back on campus safely is the goal for universities everywhere. Never before have any of us faced such a challenge - knowing what to do if there is a positive case and dealing with it promptly and professionally. 

The UK government advises a system of testing if you have symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), then tracking and tracing those whom you have had contact with. This has particular importance in places like universities where thousands of people come in to contact with each other each day. 

We spoke to eight UK universities to understand their hope and fears when considering how to manage this seemingly onerous operation. They gave us some real insights into and ideas on how to tackle tracking and tracing in universities and how ultimately, we can get staff and students back on campus safely. 

Mark Wilson, Chief Operating Officer at Tribal opened the discussion by saying:  

After informal conversations with the CBI and large university in the south west, it became apparent that tracking and tracing COVID-19 cases within a university setting was going to be a major headache for a number of reasons – namelythe volume and proximity of people moving around a university campus, not to mention the thousands of locations they have travelled fromthe multiple touchpoints they all have; and how to let others know when a student or staff member tests positive.

We know from our own experience, that a university’s IT infrastructure holds much of the data needed to find where people have been and coupled swift communicationlet others know in order for them to get tested or self-isolate if necessary. Speed of communication is the key here. Email is not fit for purpose for this. Real-time push notifications are fundamental to engage the whole institutionsafeguard your studentsmaintain education continuity; and keep you safe. 

In response, one of our colleagues from a London university gave an insight into the tools available:  

We are using door access control across our libraries; we then have access to this data in our student system, SITS. A lot of our doors are swipe access - the challenge for us is that one person swipes and lets numerous people in at one time! We can also use our Wi-Fi touchpoints to note who is accessing each building and our mobile app provider is creating a series of QR codes placed around campus that can be scanned by students if they wish

Creating new tools (such as bespoke QR codes) takes time and we need things in place immediately. We have working groups looking at what happens if a student tests positive. It hasn’t been determined what we are going to do just yet.

Matthew Parkin, Head of the Track and Trace team at Sheffield Hallam University adds:

We are also very interested in door access control. However, it doesn’t tell us how long someone has been in the building for. We are also considering how to use QR codes, places where people will dwell for 15 minutes or more, we will ask our students to scan across the campus if they are there for a certain amount of time. This would line up with student catering cards, as this tells us where people have purchased food.”  

We did consider WIFI but there were some privacy concerns. We are also very interested in notifications; how much are students going to tell us? We anticipate that we will get positive tests / people that have had COVID but find out through a third party i.e. parents, accommodation providers etc. We need to be able to track groups of people and put a status next to them i.e. these people are positive, these people need a test, these people have had COVID.

Giving a strategic viewpoint in support of Matthew’s commentsJoe Rennie, Group Director for Student & Academic Services at Sheffield Hallam University added: 

In a Yorkshire and Humber public health meeting, they were clear that the message is about prevention, not expecting us to track our students around campus. They said most tests would come back negative. In response, we have scaled back what are initial plans were [as Matthew explained].

We don’t want to be the source of an outbreak and cause a local lockdown. We are not going to be complacent; we are going to do our best to track and trace and meet our responsibilities and keep our staff and students safe. Our messaging will be all about simple COVID prevention behaviours.

Stacy Hall, Academic Services Manager (Student Records) at University of Leicester added some new ideas into the conversation about having less students on campus and using data in new ways: 

We have an idea of ‘study and live’ bubbles. Students will form a bubble relating to their specific course and live with them in student accommodation where possible and if appropriate. This makes track and trace a whole lot easier because the university knows who students have been with.” 

In addition to this, we have devised a programme called ‘Ignite’ which is focused on blended learning using technology with limited face to face where it is safe to do so. For subjects such as medicine, this will be a small cohort using their own building.We are launching a screening programme; we will provide screening for staff and students. This is on top of the NHS testing. 

Data is key for us. For some required data sets, we’re able to use other tables in the system such as the consent table used for shielding; we can identify students that are feeling vulnerable so they can be referred to help for welfare and support. 

Lucy Hutchinson, Head of Professional Services Delivery and Reza Mosavian, Engage Product Manager with Tribal added some thoughts on how they anticipate SITS:Vision might work with Tribal’s Engage app to assist universities track and trace those with positive test results:  

Lucy: From a student facing perspective – we’ve been looking at a symptom tracker and reporting on positive tests and the recent whereabouts of those who have been tested and those who they have been in contact with. This will use the data created by and stored in SITS. 

We’ve also been looking at a staff facing track and trace report. You can use this facility to search for students that have reported symptoms. Being able to search for people at risk and being able to contact them is a huge advantage to staff. Using SITS as the data source and Engage as the method of communicating is a powerful combination.” 

Reza: “Where my focus is vehicle which you use to drive the solutions Lucy talked about. How can we make it easy for the institution and students who are potentially affected? It’s not just about doing tech for techs sake, it’s about the desired effect on the users and how you make a solution fit with the measures you have in place. A single source of communication [and therefore truth] that has clarity is something I’d like to know if universities would be interested in exploring.” 

Lucy: We’d be interested to know your timescales: Do you have solutions in place [and in-house]? Are you going external? There are options for us to support you… 

Matthew Parkin, Sheffield Hallam University responds with a very interesting interpretation: 

We believe we will be in the situation for the foreseeable future . We want a sector solution that students will want to engage with as well.”  

We are developing solutions to get us through September. These things will need to improve by working with other universities and external partners for a new solution that will benefit all of us. We have to live with this for a little while.”  

Mark Wilson, Tribal 

We are all in reaction mode. Given what we are currently experiencing and still learning from, there has been some interesting stats on international and domestic students that were surprisingly high. EU numbers have been down. But the point is - this isn’t turning people off.”  

“How much has this got to do with the universities public facing image? Saying to the world ‘we are safe, you can trust us’ vs the nightmare scenario of campus or university lock-downs.

We have a lot of products that, put together, work well. They add benefits in other ways. It’s about saying to students ‘you just need to look here’ and they can access everything required in one place."

Kathryn Roughton, Principal Business Analyst at Sheffield Hallam University adds another view to add to those of Matthew: 

It might be naively optimistic to think that the national track and trace might do what’s been discussed further down the line. To date, it doesn’t really do what we need it to do so we must think of things we can do to fill that potential gap.  

Mark and Reza, Tribal 

Mark: “It’s no secret that for some time, Tribal has been taking it’s technology away from just back office administration to deliver front office benefit, be that whether that be directly to staff or students. The logical extension to all of that is being mobile ready; thinking about how you’d expect someone to interact on a phone vs a web screen. Thinking about apps – many institutions write their own, but is that sustainable? We see having an app as part of the kit’ and being able to communicate with students quickly in a format they are happy with.”  

Reza: Students need a platform that they are familiar with [in terms of user interface design]. Engage naturally integrates with SITS and serves multiple purposes and gives a slicker experience.  

Max Scales, Student Experience and Learning Technology Lead at Tribal told us that, in his experience it is difficult to keep students informed via email alone: 

Communication was a real sore point when I worked at a university in student engagement. You can be waiting five days before a student reads your email. This is the main worry I have around the use of traditional methods of communication. You need to be able to get communications to students ASAP and alert them, and they should be able to speak to you ASAP if needed.  

We’ve heard about some really innovative ways of collecting the information we need. A real problem for universities will be getting the necessary information to the required students in a quick fashion without having to constantly remind them to check their emails every day for the next two years. Once there is a positive test, all the information can be gathered, and the affected students can be informed within two minutes.” 

This approach is much better for a student in order for them to process the information received; make a judgement on how they feel (physically) and take appropriate action – get tested, seek treatment or self-isolate. Rather than in a few days’ time when the risk of spreading the disease to everyone they have been in contact with, has increased. This scenario is a perfect fit for an app like Engage.  

Jennifer Kay, Assistant Registrar at Guildhall School of Music & Drama  

We are a small institution, so the volume of data and the contact we have with our students are less than some larger institutions.  We already have an existing absence process. We hope to build an online form to fit into this i.e. when a student started feeling ill or began self-isolating. We are also expecting students to fill in details on their vulnerability, which will inform the types of activities they take part in. This will be part of our new enrolment plan too.  

All this will work alongside our door entry system, timetabling and absence recording - similar to other institutions. We are taking responsibility for informing students on work placements too. We are not planning on keeping this for very long, but this may change. 

Matthew Parkin says that Sheffield Hallam University supports the extra measures Guildhall School of Music & Drama have for their vulnerable students by providing similar support based on personal circumstances and personal choice. 

Mark Wilson asked Joe Rennie of Sheffield Hallam University: How they plan to communicate with students? 

Joe: Initially, we plan for a small communicable diseases team to monitor this through text, phone and email. It’s hard to say as we don’t know the scale of this and the volumes of work it will create. In addition to this, we work closely with our accommodation providers who can physically knock on doors if required to track, trace and inform students.”

So how are you feeling about this new way of living, working and studying? Could we all do more? Do we need to? We heard from colleagues in the sector that some are busy developing technologies to manage this new process and others are modifying existing processes to fit.  

COVID-19 crept up on us and it will be some years before its affects are gone – some things may have changed permanently. One thing we seem to agree on is a blended approach to tackling all it throws at us is the best way to mitigate its affects and not only get us all back on campus safely but making sure the university experience is as enjoyable and rewarding as its always been. 

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