When students in suburban Atlanta returned to school for in-person classes amid the pandemic, they were required to mask up, like in many places across the US. Yet in this 95,000-student district, officials took mask compliance a step further than most.
Through a network of security cameras, officials harnessed artificial intelligence to identify students whose masks drooped below their noses.
“If they say a picture is worth a thousand words, if I send you a piece of video – it’s probably worth a million,” said Paul Hildreth, the district’s emergency operations coordinator. “You really can’t deny, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me, I took my mask off.’”
The school district in Fulton county had installed the surveillance network, by Motorola-owned Avigilon, years before the pandemic shuttered schools nationwide in 2020. Out of fear of mass school shootings, districts in recent years have increasingly deployed controversial surveillance networks like cameras with facial recognition and gun detection.
With the pandemic, security vendors switched directions and began marketing their wares as a solution to stop the latest threat. In Fulton county, the district used Avigilon’s “no face mask detection” technology to identify students with their faces exposed.
Remote learning during the pandemic ushered in a new era of digital student surveillance as schools turned to AI-powered services like remote proctoring and digital tools that sift through billions of students’ emails and classroom assignments in search of threats and mental health warning signs. Back on campus, districts have rolled out tools like badges that track students’ every move.
But one of the most significant developments has been in AI-enabled cameras. Twenty years ago, security cameras were present in 19% of schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Today, that number exceeds 80%. Powering those cameras with artificial intelligence makes automated surveillance possible, enabling things like temperature checks and the collection of other biometric data.
Districts across the country have said they had bought AI-powered cameras to fight the pandemic. But as pandemic-era protocols like mask mandates end, experts said the technology will remain. Some educators have stated plans to leverage pandemic-era surveillance tech for student discipline while others hope AI cameras will help them identify youth carrying guns.
The cameras have faced sharp resistance from civil rights advocates who question their effectiveness and argue they trample students’ privacy rights.
Noa Young, a 16-year-old high school junior in Fulton county, said she knew that cameras monitored her school but wasn’t aware of their hi-tech features like mask detection. She agreed with the district’s now-expired mask mandate but felt that educators should have been more transparent about the technology.
“I think it’s helpful for Covid stuff but it seems a little intrusive,” Young said in an interview. “I think it’s strange that we were not aware of that.”