The American public's favorite methods of notification are still phone and e-mail, but advancements in technology over the past several years have changed the way many district leaders contact parents when an emergency arises at school. The latest tech feature popular in the general public-text messages-is taking hold in some districts.
Even with the benefits of these higher-tech options, television broadcasts and radio announcements remain the most popular conduits for sending information from schools, businesses and governments to large groups of people, according to This Is a Test-This Is Only a Test, a CDW-G survey released in January. And only 39 percent of respondents to the survey say their school district or office is "very strong" or "good" at relaying emergency information.
On top of that, another 2008 CDW-G survey, School Safety Index, indicates that only 45 percent of districts use a mass notification system. Out of those, 70 percent use automated phone messages, 61 percent use e-mail alerts, and just 32 percent use text messages, even though 45 percent nationwide believe that text messages are convenient for sending and receiving information. The School Safety Index survey of 403 public school district IT and security directors revealed that district employees cited budget constraints as a barrier to purchasing and implementing a notification system and too few staff member resources for lags in technology.
Providers of some mass notification systems that automatically call parents also offer texting and e-mails through the same service. "You would want a hybrid system that also does voice, text and e-mail," to off er more ways to communicate, explains Houston Thomas, public safety business development manager for CDW-G.
Multitasking Is Key
Some systems allow parents to log in to their school's designated Web site using their own contact information, while others use the school's own database of contact numbers for parents, teachers and staff to create a database for their mass notification system.
School districts such as the Shelbyville (Ind.) Central School District allow parents to sign on to a Web site and enter phone numbers that the district can call to send text messages. Parents who ask for text messages also receive telephone calls and e-mails, explains district spokeswoman Kim Owens. "You can add pagers, mom's e-mail, dad's e-mail. You can customize on four different levels," she says.
"The technology is there. It's a lot more affordable, a lot more capable as well, but I think the schools have a lot more room to grow and make them more effective," says Bob Kirby, senior director of K-12 Education for CDW-G.
District leaders must realize that e-mail and texting are becoming "primary communication tools" that can "reach a large number of people very quickly," Kirby says. District administrators should evaluate their emergency notification systems to see how effective they are in reaching large numbers of administrators, staff , parents and even students. "Finally, districts need to increase parent and community awareness about the use of mass notification systems," Kirby says, through traditional means such as newspapers, newsletters and public meetings.
On a cold day in February, an early morning fire at the Knauf Fiberglass plant in Shelbyville sent billows of black smoke near Coulston Elementary School, Owens recalls. District officials, using Honeywell's Instant Alert, called parents at home, at work and by cell phone and used text messages and e-mail stating, "Coulston Elementary School will be closed on Friday due to the school's proximity to the Knauf fire and smoky conditions in the building."
District leaders notified parents at the other two elementary schools, as well as the middle school and high school, about closing the buildings early due to a drop in water pressure. And the system's use widened to include the entire community. That afternoon, district officials called the district's 3,700 parents on behalf of the Indiana American Water Co., which provides the town's water, warning them to boil their water because of possible contamination due to the water pressure. They placed another call the following day informing parents that the problem was solved.
Owens says Instant Alert, which uses the district's contact list and allows parents to log in to the system to provide additional numbers to call in emergencies, proved its usefulness. Parents were pleased that they were informed of the emergency, and all the contact methods worked well, including text messages, which were more condensed than the phone messages because they contained a limited number of characters.
"It was very unfortunate we had the fire, but the good news is that there were no lives lost and it gave the system immediate credibility," Owens says.
Superintendent David Adams says he chose Instant Alert to improve communication with parents. "If you don't get them information, the information leaks back to them second-and third-hand," he says.
But district staff members must update their own numbers and remind parents to update them as well. "It is definitely a system that requires oversight," Owens warns. "The database has to be maintained and updated on a regular basis."
Most mass notification systems allow administrators to log on to their own designated Web page on the company site and either type or record a message that can be sent via phone, e-mail or even text message to thousands of homes. District personnel can also log on to the system from home or call in messages, and most provide 24-hour help if an emergency arises and the administrator cannot access a computer. One Indiana superintendent took a test drive on snowy roads in his neighborhood early one morning about five years ago to see if he should cancel school and wound up sliding off the road into a ditch. He called Instant Alert from his cell phone to cancel school, says Karla Lemmon, program leader for Instant Alert.
Some Web-based systems use software to connect the district to the emergency notification system and then train administrators how to use the software. Most mass notification companies maintain the district's parental contact numbers in their own system so if school closes, district officials can access the system through the telephone or by logging on to the company's Web site. Larger companies have multiple backup systems in case of a power outage.
Having a variety of ways to contact parents in an emergency, including e-mail and texting, is optimal, because other methods can be faster when phones are jammed, says Houston Thompson, a public safety business development manager for CDW-G.
Despite the fact that 31 percent of adults text daily, according to a Pew Research Center survey, schools say they are reluctant to use text messaging because it can be costly. Text messages can cost 10-20 cents each, although many phone companies offer texting packages for about $5 a month. School officials say text messages must be short and less detailed than phone messages.
Natasha Rabe, chief business officer for Connect-ED, believes that text messages also lack the personal touch of a phone call from the superintendent or principal. "The power of an authority figure's personal voice really helps foster the long-term relationship between the school and the parent," she says, because parents know they are getting information from a responsible person in charge in their school or district.
In March, the Meramec River in Missouri had swollen with rainwater and threatened to flood the surrounding area of Valley Park. School was out for spring vacation, but officials in the Valley Park School District used SchoolReach to contact parents and families by telephone, asking for volunteers to help the Valley Park Parks Department fill about 1,000 sandbags around the early childhood center, elementary school, middle school, and high school, all of which are located on one campus next to the river.
The schools had suffered heavy flood damage in 1993, so Superintendent David Knes also called parents asking them to help move furniture and school equipment to the upper floors of school buildings where they would be safe from flooding. "We were able to get our message out to our specific audience almost immediately," says Kathy Smith, director of community and public relations.
Houston's Multilingual Needs
The Connect-ED system works for multilingual school districts like Houston Independent School District, where 58 percent of the district's students are Hispanic. School officials create separate lists of Spanish-speaking students and record a separate message in Spanish for those students' parents. Even with 70 to 80 percent of parents in Houston impoverished, most families at least have a cell phone, says press secretary Terry Abbott. In February, the district, which has 200,000 students at 300 schools, sent out a warning about a peanut butter recall.
"The federal government says if you have Peter Pan and/or Great Value peanut butter you should look on the lid of the jar. If your peanut butter has a product code number that begins with the numbers 2111 then you should throw it out because it might be contaminated with salmonella," the message stated. It also informed parents that the district had collected every child's peanut butter sandwiches that day and replaced them with "new safe sandwiches."
That warning also went out to Spanishspeaking parents who "reacted very favorably to the peanut butter recall phone message," says Abbott. "Many of them had no idea of the salmonella threat until they got our Connect-ED phone call."
District officials do not send out text messages because they do not want to burden parents with extra costs, Abbott explains."Eight out of 10 of our students live at or near the poverty line," he says. "Frequent text messages from the school could run into quite a bit of money for them."
Paying the Costs
Many of the mass notification companies charge districts a per-pupil fee with yearly contracts, while others offer packages that include a certain number of 30-second phone calls (see sidebar). And still other companies offer unlimited calls for a flat rate because they want districts to make the most of their systems.
If districts choose a company that charges per call, then district officials might only use the system for emergencies, which could make it harder for them to budget, Rabe says. "We want you to use it for attendance," she says. "We want you to use it for outreach, and we want you to use it for emergencies."
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe is a freelance writer in Princeton, N.J.