Elementary students in Pinellas County will soon be paying for their lunches with a quick swipe of their hands.
School officials plan to roll out palm scanners in elementary school lunchrooms in November. High schools and middle schools got the devices this summer.
"We are currently working on sending out letters to let the elementary parents know what we are doing," said Art Dunham, the district's food services director.
"This is voluntary," he added.
Pinellas schools became the first in the country to use an infrared beam to make long lunch lines disappear. The district outfitted all of its middle and high schools with Fujitsu PalmSecure technology that scans a student's unique palm vein pattern and matches it to his meal plan.
In June, the School Board approved paying $80,000 for the palm scanners. For the elementary schools, Dunham said the scanners will cost $34,000.
It's worth it, he said. The scanners have shaved the waiting time in lunch lines, when students usually have 30 minutes to choose their food, pay and eat. "Our goal was to get everyone to eat, and that they have at least 10 to 15 minutes to eat," Dunham said.
A major test of the scanners came when a water pipe at Largo Middle broke weeks ago and students had to move temporarily to Osceola Middle. That day, the school's cafeteria served 1,700 students, twice its daily average. Everyone had enough to eat and there were no glitches, Dunham said.
"It's amazing they could do it. The old system never could," said Donna Crews, food services manager at Osceola Middle.
School officials agree that so far, the palm scanners are working better than the finger scanners they replaced. The latter devices broke down frequently, Dunham said.
The finger scanners were tricky because some special-education students were spooked by the devices' red beams, and students would sometimes paint their fingertips, Crews said.
At Tarpon Springs Middle, principal Susan Keller said the scanners have "shortened the length of time students have to stand in line."
Of course, there is a caveat to how efficient the scanners can be: students. "It's only as nice as the children who want to use it properly will be," Crews said. "It works great when the kids are paying attention."