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American schools spent millions on COVID scanners that didn’t work

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As stories break regularly about fraudulent use of COVID relief money, a new report has found yet another extensive case of poorly spent funds related to tackling the virus.

As students were returning to in-person classes in August 2020, multiple technology companies claimed that they had developed thermal imaging cameras and scanners that could screen students for COVID-related fevers in real time. The Daily Beast reports that “over 200 school districts nationwide” were persuaded to buy these devices between 2020 and 2021. Schools soon found out the technology never worked.

The scanners use infrared sensors to analyze the heat radiating from a person’s skin — a proxy for measuring core body temperature. Some systems have been advertised as being able to assess multiple people in a crowd at once. But assessing body temperature alone has been proven to be a highly flawed measure for determining whether someone has COVID. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that approximately 40 percent of infected people won’t have a fever at all.

From 2020 to 2021, Congress passed three COVID relief packages totaling $190 billion in aid for the education system. However, schools had little guidance on how to effectively use the money. In that vacuum, countless companies — of varying levels of reputability — arose, promising to ease the worries of parents, administrators, and students.

“Districts were really in the dark about what to do,” Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab research center at Georgetown University, told the Daily Beast. “They were just on the phone, trying to buy buy buy.”

Results from the scanners were all over the board. “It’s like a random number generator,” said Conor Healy, a surveillance expert at research organization IPVM. Schools began questioning the validity of the scanners as false positives proliferated during the warmer months. And a recent study of the scanners found that the software used in many of the devices often can make a feverish person appear healthy.

As early as March 2021, researchers were questioning the efficacy of these devices. IPVM warned that the scanners were dangerously ineffective, raising the risk that infected people could be passed through screening checkpoints and unknowingly spread the virus.

The Food and Drug Administration went as far as issuing a public alert warning that improper use of the devices could “present potentially serious public health risks.”

“There’s a real problem of accountability here on every level,” said Healy.

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