MOUNT VERNON -- There is a limit on body temperature necessary to enter Mount Vernon School this fall.

In an attempt to combat any potential COVID-19 outbreaks once school resumes, Mount Vernon purchased three facial recognition thermal cameras and will require anyone entering the building to stop at those machines. The cameras are placed in the foyer of the main entrance and as entrants step up, a camera will scan their face and record temperatures without a touch.

Mount Vernon Superintendent and Principal Pat Mikkonen began looking at options to mitigate COVID-19 last spring. He was inundated with sales emails from vendors that sparked the idea and then research led him to SafeScan’s cameras, which Mikkonen felt was a strong option to help ensure the safety of students and staff.

Mikkonen believes that positive COVID-19 cases in schools around the state are inevitable, but he also believes schools should be proactive in the prevention of possible cases. Mount Vernon required staff to take and record their temperatures when schools let out, but manually taking temperatures for 225 students, plus staff, was going to be an arduous task.

“I started looking at what was out there to go touchless, where we didn’t have to have someone manning that device,” Mikkonen said. “... What we liked about the unit was that it was touchless, thermal and it had contact tracing software. The software we download will create profiles and will be able track everyone that comes into the building.”

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Thermal cameras read body temperature from infrared radiation and typically find certain facial areas to find the best indicator of body temperature. Mount Vernon will implement a threshold temperature to allow people into the building, following the 100.4-degree temperature recommended by the Centers of Control and Disease Prevention.

Software in the camera creates a digital database of anyone entering the building rather than having a staff member write down everyone’s name and temperature. It will also help with a history of temperature readings and easily track down who a person was recently in contact with if they cross the 100.4-degree threshold.

The recording takes a couple seconds and provides an instant reading. If a temperature crosses the threshold, someone in the administrative office is notified and a student will be taken to an isolation room until the next steps are determined.

“We’ll be able to have that data if we get a positive case from a student or a positive case from an adult that works here,” Mikkonen said. “We’ll be able to help the (South Dakota) Department of Health a little more easily as far as the history and everything that they’re going to be asking in the event of a positive.”

Mikkonen has also been getting calls from fellow administrators around the state about the cameras after detailing his plan to use them during a July meeting with the School Administrators of South Dakota, which featured an estimated 50-60 superintendents.

Planning for prevention

The cameras did not come cheap, with some on the market costing more than $3,000. Mount Vernon purchased its three cameras for $2,000, hoping the bill is covered through money received from the federal CARES Act.

Through the CARES Act, schools are able to spend money on a broad variety of areas, from laptops, internet hotspots, personal protective equipment, teacher training and salaries. Schools can also use the money to purchase items for the upcoming school year, which Mount Vernon took advantage of with the thermal cameras.

Mount Vernon also has the option to put the cost toward the budget for the 2020-2021 school year, creating flexibility if needed.

“There’s 12 different categories that you could potentially use the (CARES Act) money for, so that was the one place we looked at first,” Mikkonen said. “We’re still undecided on that, but if it’s not going to come out of our CARES money, we did for the 2020-2201 budget, embed some of the costs we are incurring, especially on the physical plan of our capital outlay budget.”

Mikkonen says that Mount Vernon is likely to require athletic participants, coaches, officials and spectators to use the camera upon entrance, but the school is still ironing out final details with its athletic cooperative partner, Plankinton.

In addition, the school board determined usage of face masks has been left to personal preference. However, the school sent a waiver to parents requesting -- but not requiring -- signatures acknowledging the inherent risk of sending children to school in the midst of a pandemic.

“The greatest social experiment in our state has yet to start,” Mikkonen said. “That experience is going to be 132,000 students in South Dakota and roughly 10,000, going back to school. … We only have these children and adults under our direction 7 1/2 hours per day. Do I think (a positive case) is inevitable? Yes. Are we going to try to stay in school as long as we can? Yes.

“It may not be us, but we will see schools in South Dakota (with positive cases),” Mikkonen continued. “In fact, they’re already happening. It’s just that you’re not hearing about it because we’re not in school yet. It’s in schools already.”