EXCLUSIVE: California pre-schoolers tracked with RFID devices as part of federal stimulus grant for Head Start On August 31, 2010, in Technology, by Rusty Ray
This is a general monitoring screen that staff and administrators using RFID technology would see on their personal computers. C Square – Advanced Safety Enhancement Solution for Child Care Centers, provided by One Solution Technology, Inc. PHOTO CREDIT: Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services IT Department
About two hundred and forty pre-schoolers in Contra Costa County, California are being tracked with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology as part of a Head Start facility upgrade made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
The month-old system requires students to be digitally signed in by parents, and then to put on a numbered, v-shaped jersey with the RFID tracking device sewn into the chest area on the right side. The jersey is similar to what basketball athletes wear and is placed over the children’s everyday clothing.
White boxes that hang from the classroom ceilings and the playground areas “read” the signals transmitted by the RFID tags on the jerseys.
Software allows teachers and administrators to see pupils displayed on a screen as moving dots. If one of them wanders out of the area in which they are supposed to be, a notification is sent immediately to the teacher.
A technology grant for $50,000, administered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, allowed Contra Costa County officials to make better use of staffing resources, while at the same time improve the safety of students.
“The main reason, obviously, for implementing this type of system is safety,” said Karen Mitchoff, spokeswoman for the Employment & Human Services Department of Contra Costa County, in an exclusive interview with Big 3 News on Monday.
Mitchoff stressed that the program is not 24/7, and has only been implemented at one location out of a total of nineteen Head Start facilities in the county.
“This is only while children are on the campus, tracking their location both in the classroom and outside on the playground,” the agency spokeswoman continued. “It’s a safety issue, as the number one issue. Technology has made it easier for us to keep track of all the children.”
The stimulus technology funds — described on the Recovery.gov website as providing “optimum visibility, security and safety” for students — were part of a larger $1.1 million grant awarded to the county for staff training & development and infrastructure upgrades such as communications and video surveillance system improvements.
In order to sustain the system, county officials must come up with their own funding sources for upgrades, replacement or expansion of components.
Mitchoff said the new service frees up teachers to spend more time with students and less time completing paperwork, attendance roll call and meal schedules.
“Head Start requires that not only do you take attendance when children come in in the morning, like when you and I went to school, but attendance has to Karen Mitchoff, Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services spokeswoman be taken every hour,” Mitchoff stated.
School staff estimates the RFID tracking devices will save between one to three hours of man hours per teacher, per day. Each classroom is equipped with three teachers, which represents a savings of $45,000 per month.
So far, Mitchoff said public response to the program has been generally supportive.
“We did outreach to the community ahead of time, so that the parents would be familiar with it, and overwhelmingly they supported it,” Mitchoff said. “I will tell you, there was one parent who was concerned about this. She felt the money could have been better utilized for other things in the community, but as you know, grants are very specific and this is what the grant was for — technology.”
A San Franciso-based privacy and digital rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), called the RFID tracking program “scary news” in an August 30 article entitled, “Reading, Writing and RFID Chips: A Scary Back-to-School Future in California.”
Rebecca Jeschke, EFF Media Relations Director, fears the technology will be used to collect data about students and conclusions, rightly or wrongly, will end up in permanent school records.
“RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping,” Jeschke said. “Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child’s physical location. If readings are taken often enough, you could create an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a child’s school day — one that’s easy to imagine being misused, particularly as the chips substitute for direct adult monitoring and judgement.”
When asked if the RFID program would be expanded to other Head Start campuses in the county, Mitchoff said it could happen in phases.
“We will have to evaluate it, and at some point, we will see if we are able to expand it,” Mitchoff stated. “I don’t see us expanding to the rest of the sites all at once, it may have to be a phased-in project, if we are able to do so.”
On a special Monday night broadcast of Big 3 News, viewer reaction was generally against RFID technology being used to track school children.
One caller from Texas, who had experience working in a daycare, wondered if county officials had thoroughly examined possible health risks to the children wearing the devices. Other callers asked how much personal student information was available through the RFID components if they were compromised.
A pre-school teacher from Idaho expressed an opinion that managing roll call was not excessively burdensome, and questioned the use of federal stimulus money specifically targeted towards low-income families.
A caller from Florida said the technology was a good thing in order to protect children.