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Optimizing Your School's Emergency Notification System

girl student holding chalkboard that says

More Than It Seems

Emergency notification systems have become indispensable tools for school communication. When used effectively, they do more than simply keep families informed and alert about emergencies—they help foster a sense of community and set the stage for increased engagement.

That is, with proper setup, usage, and maintenance, the system can be an asset. Without it, your system can become a constant thorn in your side. So, it’s important to invest some time into considering issues around your system and how to get it working more smoothly for your school district.

The Big Picture

Generally, a mass notification system pulls contact data from your student information system into a platform that gives you options to communicate with families via phone, text, email, social media, or your school website or app. This is accomplished by a regularly-scheduled (usually nightly) automated data export/import process. As a result, your emergency notification system should have the most up-to-date contact information at all times (at least, as up-to-date as families have provided).

So, what can go wrong? From my actual experience, quite a bit can go wrong. You might have seen one of the following instances:

  • Families not receiving messages
  • People who don’t have a child at your school receiving messages
  • Massive influx of calls after you send a call
  • Messages playing in the wrong language
  • Messages going to the wrong student

We won’t be solving all of those issues in this post, but we will help you better implement a system that will lead to fewer of these issues.

One note—many systems now accommodate classroom-to-home communication. This has many wonderful benefits and should be considered as a possible practice for your school engagement plans. However, in this post we’re going to focus on the best practices for usage by school and district leadership.

Young mother receiving emergency notice on her smart phone

Message Types

In a general sense, there are three types of messages from these systems: Automated, Engagement, and Emergency.

Automated Messages include things like:

  • Attendance calls
  • Low lunch balance alert texts
  • Overdue library book emails reminders

You set these messages once, and the system sends messaging on a regular basis without any action on your part. When a student meets certain criteria, such as being absent from school or having a low lunch balance, that student’s information will be picked up in an automated report, and the contact will receive the automated message.

Engagement Messages include things like:

  • Reminders about an upcoming performance or game
  • Weekly principal’s message about the school calendar
  • Information about when to send back that fundraiser

These are messages created by the district or school administration, possibly in collaboration with staff members or partners such as the PTA. They can usually be pre-set to send at an optimal time, and they are intended to keep families informed about what’s happening in the school community.

Emergency Messages include things like:

  • School closure calls
  • Security update texts
  • Imminent issues such as late buses

These messages are always created by district or school leadership and sent immediately. Because of their emergency nature, they are often sent to a wider range of the contacts on file for each student.

Go with the flow

Know How to Go With the Flow

The most important first step in actually using an emergency system is understanding how it is setup. Most people focus on learning the interface that allows you to send the messages. Beyond that, you also need to understand how the data flows so you can avoid issues and align your messaging tactics. Connect with your registration and IT teams to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what data fields in your student information system track to which places in your notification system.

Make sure there is a process for getting student contact data into the student information system—and for making changes to it. It’s great that a student’s mom has updated her number on the clinic card, but unless we get that information into the student information system, it won’t be in the notification system—which means she won’t be called in a schoolwide emergency situation.

Tracking this data flow is important to communication strategy as well. Did your setup bring Emergency Contacts into the system? If so, be leery about calling ALL, even in an emergency. Grandma two states over doesn’t need a call at 5:30 a.m. to say school is closed.

Get Permissions Straight

Between your district-level team and school-based leadership at each location, there could be quite a few people who need access to the system. Or it could be just a handful. To the extent that you can keep the circle small, you can also better train and prepare the people who will pick up the phone or type out the emails. Proper setup can help prevent their potential mistakes. For example, your high school principal only needs to have access to communicate with the high school contacts. Don’t allow them access to everyone in the district. Of course, they can opt for messaging to only go to the high school in each message, but if they forget once and send to all, it can be a very confusing situation, and one that never needed to happen.

Another key point is to review annually. Every year, there are shake-ups in administration. Principals, assistant principals, and others move in, move up, move over, or move out. The permissions for your system need to be updated to reflect those changes every year.

Message Precision

The absolute best thing that you can do to allow your team to message precisely is to differentiate the audience. There are many specific groups you may need to communicate with on a regular basis. For example: 

  • Bus 25 had a mechanical issue and is now running an hour late.
  • Permission slips for the fourth grade’s museum field trip are due tomorrow.
  • Chorus practice is canceled due to teacher illness.

In these instances, you really want to have groups set up for your busses, your grades, and your activities. If you don’t, your options are to either not communicate the information or to over-communicate it to a bunch of people completely unaffected. When you message everyone with information that isn’t relevant to them, you’re training them that these calls or notifications from your school are not important. Over time, you’ll teach your families to not answer your calls and not read your emails. 

These individual groups should be set up ahead of time so that you can make calls specifically to them. To make this most effective, whenever you can, you should use the option of setting up parameters rather than uploading a list. Parameters will allow the system to search and collect the proper contacts before each message (for example, all students in 4th grade) rather than you having to constantly update a list with changing membership (uploading the list of 4th graders every time someone enrolls or withdraws). Generally, if the group is based on something that already exists in your student information system (grade level, bus number, etc), you can (and should) set it up as a parameter. Smaller groups that probably won’t be tracked in your student information system are typically activity-based.

Remember, don’t call the whole school because one bus is late or because chorus practice is canceled. Have yourself set up to communicate directly to those groups to keep your system at top effectiveness.

young woman's reaction to various phone calls

Wrong Numbers

“I don’t have a kid at your school. Stop calling me!” is one of the most frustrating situations all around. Sometimes, these folks are pretty angry—after all, they’ve been woken up, disturbed in the evening, and whatever else due to ongoing calling or messaging. They aren’t part of your school family, so it’s easy to dismiss them. But that’s the exact wrong thing to do. Resolving the problem quickly and effectively is very important for community relations. You do not want the only thing this person knows about your school to be that you can’t seem to control your calling system.

How does this situation occur? It’s often a data entry error. But there are also many instances where a family’s phone number changed and didn’t update you. When the number was reassigned, the number was already set to receive your messaging.

The best way to think of this situation is that the caller is helping you find incorrect data. To best resolve this, you need to have a process. When you find out that the contact information is wrong, you’ll usually need to use the notification system to track down the student, and then make the change in the student information system that feeds it. Otherwise, as we mentioned earlier, the data might overwrite what you put in the notification system.

Languages

Make sure your system can auto-translate into different languages to accommodate all of your families. The translations may not be perfect, but they are certainly better than nothing. Follow your vendor’s guidelines for setting up those alternate languages.

With regard to translations, consider which of the student information system’s language fields should trigger your notification system’s translation. For example, I’ve seen districts basically set up to translate for students in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. However, in many cases, that’s not the outcome you want...

  • A child could be adopted to English-speaking parents.
  • The parent of an ESOL student may speak fluent English.
  • A student may have exited the ESOL program (thanks to your awesome teachers), but the parents may still need communication support.

It is best to have a separate field in your student information system that lists the language of the parent/guardian to ensure that you are engaging all families to the best of your abilities.

Conclusion

There are many elements to a notification system, and we’ve just touched on a few today. Hopefully, this will get you thinking about how to use the system to help you enhance your overall school communications efforts and build engagement. Take the time to make sure it’s right so that it doesn’t become a constant source of aggravation for you and your families.