School system implements AlertNow service

November 30, 1999|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

As many as 14,700 families might have heard Elizabeth Morgan's voice on their phones or answering machines earlier this week.

"Hello. I want to introduce you to our new communication system, AlertNow."

The message launched Washington County Public Schools' use of AlertNow Rapid Communication Service. Morgan, the school system superintendent, said it will enhance communication with parents and provide them with almost instantaneous information about emergencies or important dates.

The system can deliver tens of thousands of voice or text messages to telephones and other devices within minutes. Those messages can be targeted at parents with children at a certain school or throughout the county and other specific groups, said Mike Markoe, acting assistant to the superintendent.

Morgan's first message also went out in Spanish, a language she is fluent in, and other languages could be added as needed.


School officials said the service could be used during emergencies to tell parents that schools will be delayed or closed, or that a school bus broke down. Principals also envision using it to let parents know that report cards will be coming home or to tell them about testing dates.

"It's an incredible system in that you can communicate with thousands of people almost instantaneously," Morgan said. "If can be used for emergencies, special events and also as a good news communicator."

Messages, which typically will be between 30 and 45 seconds, can go out to parents countywide, as the first message did, or be narrowed down to a particular school.

Arnold E. Hammann, information management and instructional technology director, said subgroups, such as parents of students who ride a particular bus, also could be called.

"I think it will be wonderful," Paramount Elementary School Principal Sue Gordon said. "We can use it in two ways ... positive upcoming events or if a bus is late or broken down. We can single it down to an area and alert just those parents in that neighborhood."

Officials said up to five numbers per family will be stored in the database. For general messages, only one primary number will be called.

During an emergency, all five could be called.

"We're typically worried that parents are not aware (of emergencies)," Gordon said. "This is another means to quickly alert everyone."

If a line is busy, AlertNow will call the number back up to five times.

The service, which the school system has paid $25,000 to have for one year, also can send messages through e-mail, Markoe said.

Before the school system bought the service, he said the quickest way to communicate with parents was through using local media for important alerts. But typically, students were sent home with letters to share with their parents.

"But kids don't always take the information home with them," said Martin Green, principal at Boonsboro High School. "Now we can communicate with parents directly that information is coming."

Markoe said AlertNow is not replacing any other means of communication with parents. It is only "enhancing" it.

Markoe also said the system was not going to be overused and that parents will not be inundated with automated phone calls. Only authorized users can record and send a message.

"Communication is one of the top priorities of the Board of Education and the school system," board President Roxanne R. Ober said. "AlertNow's efficient and fast phone messaging system will give us an additional option for communicating important information to parents, which will provide increased parent satisfaction with our schools."

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