After the use of global positioning system (GPS) chips to track kids by schools in Texas hit a snag, a new program has found its way into use that enhances the tracking of students' attendance — as well as keeping parents informed that their children have reached the school bus.
The program works by the students producing a white card that is directed to a computer when boarding the school bus. In response, a beep is heard and the computer screen lights briefly. After that, a parent receives a text message informing that his or her child has arrived safely. The same data is also sent to the school administration.
A partnership between Cincinnati Public Schools and First Student bus company, Zpass Program is billed as a tool to inform parents and improve ridership data. But it's also one way schools are trying to keep tabs of their students – often to track attendance.
Expanding this idea, Princeton City Schools are piloting a smart-card system that allows students to use their ID cards for everything from buying lunch to checking in when they're tardy. However, a debate about the line between safety and privacy stirs up as availability of such technology increases.
"I'd say in the next 10 years this (technology) will be used in most schools. It will become a fact of life," said President John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization that sued the Texas school on behalf of a student.
In addition, Whitehead said that schools must be sensitive about how they handle such programs and need opt-out procedures because of privacy concerns.
According to USA Today, students get special bus cards with microchips that use radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology to log when and where they board and get off the bus. It's the same type of technology that some ranchers use to track their cattle, manufacturers use to track high-value inventory or drivers use when they pay for gas using ExxonMobil's Speedpass. Each bus already is equipped with a GPS tracker to map its route.
Through the ZPass program, the district's transportation office now also can keep track of which students are on which buses and where they're getting on and off. The information can be used for parent notifications, to track ridership data, and to inform parents and school officials in case of emergencies such as traffic accidents, winter weather or a missing child.
"It's going very well," said John Davis, director of transportation for the nearly 33,000-student district. "Parents and schools love the access to information and notification. It gives schools a roster of who is on the bus. Schools can access that information while the bus is en route. So if there's an incident, they know who the kids are and have parent contact information."
The program uses technology provided by Seattle-based Zonar Systems. However, only a handful of school districts in Illinois have installed similar systems on their buses.
"Nationally only 3% in the nation of school districts have this type of technology," Davis said. "It's one of those things that CPS prides themselves in trying to use technology in having peace of mind for the parents."