Despite the proliferation of COVID-19 around the world, schools have developed reopening plans for the fall semester – some with fully isolated classes, others in traditional classrooms. After Oakland University in Michigan opened both classrooms and dormitories, residents and employees have to wear COVID-19 trackers. This has led to a petition against the mandate.
Under the new rules, which students said tacitly on a student life website at the end of July, resident students must “wear a BioButton,” a device that was introduced in May to continuously monitor a person’s vital signs for 90 days. According to the developer BioIntelliSense, the coin-sized single-use device can track temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, body position, sleep and activity status with medical accuracy, thus enabling the monitoring of students, workers and high-risk patients without their involvement. Theoretically, the technology could be useful for businesses and educational institutions interested in getting people back into physical meeting rooms.
Not surprisingly, petition students refuse to be followed up on campus and off campus, and they raise a range of legitimate concerns, ranging from privacy violations to religious objections to the lack of any approval of the new requirement pass. While the petition does not call for an end to the use of BioButtons, it requests the university to make the trackers optional for employees and students. This would reduce the effectiveness of the system ̵
COVID-19 tracking technologies remain controversial due to a mix of privacy concerns and implementation restrictions. Potential solutions such as Apple’s Google-based exposure notification system for smartphones are not yet widespread in the United States. They do not have access to track personal vital signs and instead rely on self-reporting positive COVID-19 diagnoses. Alternatives like BioButton could give earlier and more detailed warnings about possible diseases, but it is unclear whether most schools rely on portable sensors or simply keep their physical classrooms closed for safe distance education.
At the time of going to press, the petition has over 2,200 signatures, representing over 10% of the university’s total student population of around 20,000. Although some of the signatures come from former Oakland students and people who appear not to be affiliated with the university, the petition is likely to continue to gain momentum as more students, staff, and members of the public become aware of the school’s new policies.