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Schools limit use of alert system

February 14, 2007

School officials said they will no longer use a new alert system to call parents about morning school closings and delays after some said Tuesday they would prefer not to receive the calls.

Washington County Public Schools spokeswoman Carol Mowen said parents were already using other types of alerts to learn about delays and closings, including the school system's Web site and local media.

She said a call that went out in error early Tuesday was not the reason officials chose to discontinue the morning calls. That call went out to parents between 4:30 and 5 a.m., said Arnold Hammann, director of information management and instructional technology.

He said he was unsure how many numbers were called at that time, but said the call was not made by school officials and there was no record of it in the AlertNow system. That call was actually last week's recording letting parents know that school was closed Feb. 7.

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Officials said late Tuesday afternoon they were still unsure why the calls were made.

"I apologize to parents who were awakened so early," said Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan. "The intent is a good one. I feel badly that it didn't accomplish the good intent. We're going to work on the problem."

Less than two hours later, officials intentionally prompted the AlertNow system to notify parents that school was closed Tuesday.

That message reached 25,356 phone numbers. Hammann said many families received multiple phone calls because they have multiple phone numbers listed for emergencies.

Tuesday's second call was the second intentional emergency use of the AlertNow service systemwide. The first one, made Feb. 7, reached 35 percent to 45 percent of listed phone numbers.

The call that was intentionally sent out Tuesday about 6:30 a.m. had a 97 percent success rate, Hammann said.

Despite that success, he said there were some technical issues.

"We're still working in the early stages of implementation of this communication tool, and we are working hard to ensure that we use it to enhance communication with stakeholders, when needed, and use the service for emergency notifications only when necessary," Hammann said.

AlertNow Rapid Communications Service still will be used to make other calls. The school system paid $25,000 for one year of the service.

At least 14,700 families have phone numbers included in the AlertNow system, which is capable of sending messages to parents countywide or in a particular school or community.

The system has worked well when sending alerts only for a particular school, Hammann said. Since Feb. 1, there have been 18 school-based messages sent out, each with a 90 percent success rate.

He said even though the morning calls for delays and closings have been eliminated, the system is still useful. In fact, he said, the morning calls were only an additional piece. AlertNow primarily is for messages for a particular school or for calls to parents when emergencies happen throughout the day.

On a morning when inclement weather is expected, Hammann said parents already are checking the school system's Web site, e-mail alerts and other communication about possible closings.

More than 9,000 parents and other stakeholders have signed up for e-mail notifications from the school system.

Morgan said the glitches Washington County has experienced in AlertNow are not typical.

"Even the company itself has never had this happen before," Morgan said.

Harford County Public Schools spokesman Don Morrison said the county also used the AlertNow service and did not have any issues similar to the ones Washington County has experienced.

"There are some growing experiences (with AlertNow), which are both equipment or technology, as well as human error or human learning curve," he said.




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The issue: Washington County Public Schools recently launched AlertNow Rapid Communication Service, which is capable of delivering tens of thousands of voice or text messages to telephones and other devices within minutes. The first time it was used to tell families countywide about a school closing last week, there were glitches that caused fewer than half of the listed numbers to be called.

What's new: The second countywide alert was issued Tuesday to let families know that school was closed for the day due to snow. A call was placed in error between 4:30 and 5 a.m. with the recording used during last week's message. A second call intentionally made about 6:30 a.m. let parents know about the day's school closing, and was 97 percent successful.

What's next: School officials said they will no longer be using AlertNow to make morning calls about school delays and closings. They are working to find the cause of the glitches and make the service more successful.

For details or to opt out of any future AlertNow notifications, parents should contact school officials at 301-766-2809.HAGERSTOWN

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