Swine Flu Outbreak Increases Schools’ Use of Speech

As the number of swine flu cases in the United States grew, many U.S. school officials used voice broadcast and mass message delivery technology to proactively reach parents with important updates and information.

In the early days of the outbreak, from April 27 to 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.

One of the first school districts to use Blackboard Connect for that purpose was the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Kimberly Uyeda, director of student medical services, recorded and sent the following message to 713,000 recipients:

We want to inform you, at this time there are no known cases of the swine flu in our schools. The school district is working closely with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to protect the health of students and staff. More than 600 school nurses are monitoring student absences and custodians are washing down common areas at school sites more frequently, on an as-needed basis. Schools are currently open, and we are urging everyone to follow these simple steps: Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands frequently. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, please do not send him or her to 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.”

Max Riley, superintendent of the Port Jefferson Union Free School District in suburban New York, was another Blackboard Connect user. “After the governor issued a state of awareness, it was crucial that we communicate with parents quickly and directly to inform them of the health and safety precautions our school district was actively taking,” Riley said in the same statement. “With the Blackboard Connect platform, we were able to effectively convey those important messages directly to parents in a matter of minutes.”

The Blackboard Connect on-demand, software-as-a-service solution enables school administrators 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 a text message that can be converted to an audio file. 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. 

Most of the calls originated from elementary and high school officials, though a few community colleges were also involved.

“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 early 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.”  

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