Swine Flu Outbreak Increases Schools' Use of Speech
In the early days of the swine flu (H1N1) epidemic, many U.S. school district officials used voice broadcast and mass message delivery technology to proactively reach parents with important updates and information. Between April 27 and May 4, roughly 1,300 school districts used Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Blackboard Connect to send 9.79 million messages to parents, staff, and residents with updates on potential cases and precautionary measures to help control the spread of the virus.
Many other schools and districts used the SchoolReach Instant Parent Contact system from GroupCast to announce their closures and relay other swine flu-related information.
One of the first school districts to use Blackboard Connect for that purpose was the Los Angeles Unified School District. Kimberly Uyeda, director of student medical services, recorded and sent a message to 713,000 recipients, letting them know that although no cases had yet been reported, the district was working closely with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, more than 600 school nurses were monitoring student absences, and custodians were washing down common areas at school sites more frequently. It also advised parents to keep sick children home from school.
“Because California borders Mexico, and so many of our students have family ties to cities in Mexico where the outbreak first hit, it was imperative that we quickly and effectively addressed the issue,” Uyeda said in a release. “On the morning of April 27, our phone lines were swamped by concerned parents who wanted to know if schools were closed, and most importantly, if their children would be safe. From my office phone, we were able to record and send an assuring message, in English and Spanish, to parents, students, and staff. The incoming calls quickly subsided, and we were able to focus on keeping our students safe.”
The West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas, was one of SchoolReach’s customers that closed due to an H1N1 case. One Friday night, the state health department notified Grace Garza, the district’s Public Education Information Management System coordinator, of a probable case. Instead of heading back to the office, Garza logged into the Web-based system from home, updated recipient lists, and created a message notifying all district staff and parents.
And although the district also made use of local media, Garza felt it was important to send parents a more detailed message about the situation via SchoolReach.
She used the system again when the closure was shortened from a week to three days.
Solutions like Blackboard Connect and SchoolReach allow school officials to create, schedule, send, and track personalized voice, email, and text messages to thousands of people in minutes. Users can record messages in their own voices using a toll-free phone number, or upload text messages that can be converted into audio files. They then select the recipients by name, group, or geographic area and specify whether they want the messages to be sent immediately or at a later date and time.
For its part, Blackboard Connect created sample scripts for clients to use as a reference to make sure they were getting all the necessary information out to the public, according to Karl Engkvist, the company’s executive vice president.
“Especially in the younger grades, it is so important to hear assurances, and hearing them from someone in authority really helped alleviate a lot of the fears and anxiety that parents were feeling,” Engkvist says.
Activity among Blackboard Connect users was “really intense” during the first week of the outbreak, but it continued through the end of the school year, Engkvist says, noting that by June, his company had been used for a total of 14 million calls.
“The flurry of activity that took place in the first eight days or so has been followed through with updates, letting parents know that schools had reopened, and those sorts of things,” he says. “The service was designed as an on-demand solution for when people really need it, and we were glad to be there for them.”
And, should the virus make a resurgence in the fall when the colder weather returns, as some experts anticipate, “administrators can rest assured that a quick, reliable communications system is in place if the need arises again,” Paul Langhorst, vice president of operations at GroupCast, said in a statement.