The New Normal in Campus Security After the Pandemic

Aug. 12, 2020
The perfect storm of three colliding phenomena will forever impact campus environments, security strategies

In the last four hundred years that first saw campuses appear in the United States, there has been little impact more profound and immediate than COVID-19. When recovery from the global pandemic is complete, campuses will have new processes, system features and capabilities, and different user experiences – all intended to both protect people from future pandemic-like exposures and to ultimately improve campus life.

The evolution of  U.S.-based university, school, hospital, and corporate campus planning has evolved over the last several centuries: From landscape design, interior, and exterior spatial layouts, to building systems, activities, and interaction planning. Security planning for campuses has significantly changed as well. From guard and locks in the earlier days to CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) participation in the architectural design process, risk assessments, and policing coordination today, campus security has evolved – and indeed, driven – security planning within the security industry. There was always a “natural” evolution to security planning, both as the needs of the campus evolved, and as improved processes and technology became available.

And then came COVID-19, an almost supernaturally impacting event on the workplace and campus.

Remember SARS? As a former Senior Security Director for a software manufacturer during the 2002 SARS epidemic, I recall many meetings with corporate health and safety, human resources, and facilities endeavoring to put our arms around the problem. We feared that SARS could explode into a global pandemic, and what should we do to protect our workforce, and be a responsible corporation? We made detailed plans, and we solicited advice from various experts. And in 2009, when H1N1 broke out, we began planning again, using assumptions we had arrived upon due to the SARS outbreak. However, no planning I ever saw could adequately prepare the U.S. student population and workforce for what we saw with COVID-19. Much of the new workplace and classroom norm is a direct result of almost on-the-fly planning to mitigate virus exposure and to simultaneously support remote-based productivity and learning in this new reality. We’re still in the midst of COVID-19, and the impacts on the workplace and campuses will create a new normal, even when we have an immunized population and a rigorous testing program available. We may have the perfect storm of three colliding phenomena that will forever impact the campus environment and security strategies:

1.   Campus space design was already fundamentally changing. Upcoming generations have different expectations of work, learning, and social experiences that have influenced new campus and interior space design. Many modern campus designs encourage small group and spur-of-the-moment, one-to-one interactions with more visual transparency that steps outside the traditional learning and workspace environment. While interaction spaces are being dispersed and dynamic, the result is that people become encouraged to have more impromptu communications. This often means that people are physically interacting with more frequency and in new ways.

2.    Security technology designed for more streamlined user experience. Campus security technology has been advancing for years to promote safety and security objectives and to deliver improved user experiences aligned with campus planner and user expectations. Many campuses had already begun adopting a frictionless access experience, for example, including contactless credentials and touchless access control, intended to improve and modernize the user experience, and thus be a more attractive place to work and learn. Technology has allowed many campuses to apply immediate and effective remediations to protect and enhance preventative measures that became crucial as the greater of society and the campus populations strived to navigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 to daily life.

3.    COVID-19 maelstrom. We had just the slightest notice that COVID-19 was going to hit, not unlike some hurricanes. In the U.S., we heard about the virus in late-December 2019 and began to discuss mitigations, like social distancing, in early February. We became concerned on March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. Governments, campuses, and workplaces then implemented operational and some technology changes, many of which will stay and become the new reality.

But then, some good news. Despite some fears, the Internet did not break with the sudden onslaught of the vast majority of employees and students switching to remote work practices and going virtual. Life on campus was already in the midst of changing, and now the onset of COVID-19 has taken us in an altered direction. While we can’t know for absolutely certain how the future will shape up, there are some preliminary indicators we can plan on in the establishment of the new normal for campus and workplace environments.

Uptick in Remote Workforce and Security Programs

Anecdotally, a vast majority of U.S.-based corporations are evaluating work-remote and telecommute programs, taking the view that a remote workforce may have advantages that were underestimated prior to the pandemic. Indeed, many companies are evaluating the proposition that this would allow their employees to live and work from anywhere, so long as they can effectively collaborate virtually. Over the next several quarters, it’s believed that many companies will continue to stage many of their employees remotely, and some are adopting a hybrid workforce, with some employees returning, and some remaining remote as we move into a recovery phase.

Utilizing the Home as a Workplace

The IT security teams have already taken the lead, providing recommendations regarding cybersecurity practices to mitigate IT risks to laptops and digital resources. For physical security, specific campus-related best practices should be considered for remote and telecommuters, including adding paper shredders to home offices, locking computers when you step away – to prevent children and other family members from accessing the resource, for example – secure cabinets and fire-rate document sleeves, and restrictions regarding smart devices, like having a digital assistant too close to the work desk area. One item to consider is to provide residential security assessments for key executives and to develop a work-from-home best practices checklist for all employees.

Campus Security and the New Normal

The campus environment was already in the midst of a couple of key, major shifts, and now with COVID-19, some changes will be accelerated while others are introduced, and quite a few are accompanied by some fairly controversial issues. Many of the new normal experiences will be centered around people counting, occupancy controls, temperature screening, contact tracing, and reducing office touchpoints.

  • People Counting is a practice almost all of us have experienced in the retail environment, and systems exist today in universities that carry out the same processes to support amenity and staffing support in student unions, for example. In the broader corporate campuses, security systems should be adapted to provide area counts. The goal for a campus operator should be to know what the occupant load looks like on a 24x7 basis, and where that load is distributed. Importantly, security, facilities, and HR should model what a campus occupancy model looks like under pandemic restrictions and recovery modes, and leveraging the systems to determine how the counts can be made, what thresholds exist, and how to alert and communicate if safe thresholds are exceeded.

        Bleeding-edge people counting involves an iOS/Android application that tracks in-bound employees and visitors, models their typical campus workspaces to         provide real-time and predictive intelligence concerning campus occupancy loads. An app like this would be bundled with several related applications, like         self-reporting.

  • Elevated Skin Temperature (EST) cameras are making quick inroads into the campus environment, and there’s plenty of controversy concerning this technology. Most importantly, EST systems are not a COVID-19 detection technology; rather, when properly engineered and calibrated into the campus, they can serve as a primary measurement of relative skin temperature, which should be confirmed by a primary means of confirming an elevated body temperature, such as a medical thermometer. It is important to note that EST cameras used for this purpose are FDA-regulated medical devices, which, among other things, requires that the devices meet certain accuracy and reliability thresholds.[1] Therefore, it is critical that a campus evaluate any EST system for FDA clearance. Many products currently being offered have not been cleared, which could indicate they lack requisite accuracy and reliability. Just as important is the proper use of these systems. For example, the ingress points may require reconfiguration using stanchions to queue people into lines as they enter so that the EST camera can properly function.[2]

        There are a variety of EST solutions emerging, which include kiosks with thermal camera components and pre-admittance surveys. These may be used for         employees, students, and visitors. As these units improve, they may become more ubiquitous on campuses.

  • Contact Tracing is a lofty goal but has many stumbling blocks. As of June 2020, most contact tracing is done voluntarily via smartphone apps and depending on a person’s locality, the ability to anonymize data for contact tracing is somewhat difficult. And, in some countries, there is fear concerning non-COVID 19 monitoring[3]. This is why app-based contact tracing is subject to limited effectiveness. Likewise, using smartphones and Bluetooth have limitations, as Bluetooth and related systems haven’t been designed for tracing. However, the two technologies are viable options for the future, with some improvements in privacy and technical performance enhancements.
  • Reducing Office Touchpoints is stepping to the forefront as a set of procedures with some technical modifications in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For example:

1.    Many security system designs are being reevaluated to allow for touchless, or frictionless, access control. Several campuses were already designed with frictionless access control, and updating more tactile-based systems requires a few use cases and imagination. The objective here is to reduce the need for employees, visitors and students to physically touch a surface when using an access control system.

2.    Office redesigns are being reconceptualized, moving from open and fluid spaces to more containerized areas with desk cubicles. Interior designers have had this conversation today as they search for ways to isolate people and force physical social distancing. This seems like a dramatic departure from campus design goals even from last year – but these times demand this kind of rethinking. Likewise, building systems are investigating what modifications to HVAC can be made to reduce potential virus loading in the office air by using improved filtering systems[4].

3.    Custodial services have already adapted to new cleaning regimens to sanitize common touch surfaces as much as possible. It’s incredibly likely that these practices will continue, even after a recovery phase is reached.

A Scenario

Let’s imagine the following hypothetical scenario, which might illustrate what the post-pandemic, “new normal” might look like in a corporate campus environment.

Bill is a team leader at ABC corporate campus in Cambridge. As he has some on-site meetings to attend one Tuesday, he decides he will drive into work. As he leaves, he tells his home AI device, “I’m off to work.” The AI app provides data to his SAFEWORK smartphone app, which notifies the company that an employee working on the third floor will be at the office in approximately 30 minutes, about the average length of time for his commute. As he approaches work, the geofencing feature on the SAFEWORK app notices his arrival and updates the forecasted occupancy load for the building and the floor. Bill parks his car and enters into the main lobby area via a motion-sensing, high-security turnstile. As he proceeds into the lobby, the EST camera takes note of his non-elevated temperature. Bill moves through the normally open turnstile, which confirms his identity via the access credential on his smartphone.

As Bill moves towards the elevator, he tells his smartwatch, “I need an elevator to the third floor.” The SAFEWORK app sends the elevator request to the building management system, which calls the elevator for Bill. As he steps in, the elevator confirms it is him, and the floor call is automatically activated. As Bill steps off the elevator, the third-floor lobby notes his presence and updates the occupancy database. Bill moves towards his smart cubicle; his phone becomes enabled, his computer port is activated, his cube fan is switched on, and the smart lock on his personal cube locker opens.

When Bill heads to the restroom, he opens the door via a push/pull paddle, completely hands-free. Afterward, he wants to grab a snack in the common dining area. As he moves towards the area, his smartwatch tells him its nearing occupancy. He sanitizes his hands as he enters, using his smartphone for cashless vending to grab a snack, then heads back to his cube.

Other than touching the surfaces he owns, BIll has touched no common surfaces.                      


Campuses have a wide variety of uses and spaces, so how COVID-19 mitigations can be planned into specific ones will be determined by the campus planners. However, the common objective should be to create frictionless and touchless systems and devices, provide data into an intelligence and communication/alerting process, and actually act to improve the occupant’s safety and security experiences.  

About the author: William Plante, ASP ITIL is a Senior Principal with ADT Commercial's Enterprise Security Risk Group.


[1] See Section 201(h) of the FD&C Act (21 U.S.C. 321(h))]

[2] Additional FDA recommendations for use may be found here.

[3] See

[4] See ASHRAE COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Preparedness Resources