When the H1N1 virus first made headlines, it generated considerable concern. First dubbed the Swine Flu, and later H1N1, both names were ominous, and the facts surrounding the virus were sketchy. Exactly how is it spread? How is it treated? Who is at risk? And most importantly, is it safe for children to go to school?
Situations like the H1N1 outbreak is why the Brownsburg Community School Corporation (BCSC) in Brownsburg, Indiana, decided to adopt the AlertNow rapid communication service in the fall of 2008. Brownsburg, a rural/suburban community ten miles outside of Indianapolis that serves around 7,225 students and their families, was initially spurred to implement AlertNow in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy.
AlertNow is a comprehensive rapid communication service specifically designed for school districts. Based in Raleigh, N.C., AlertNow delivers voice, e-mail, and text messages in multiple languages to keep parents and staff informed of both emergency and non-emergency situations. The company delivers 9 million messages each month on behalf of districts in all 50 states.
“Fortunately, we have never had to use AlertNow in an emergency situation,” says Donna Petraits, director of communications at BCSC and the district administrator for the AlertNow program. “But that’s certainly a large part of the reason that we went with a system that was reliable, fast and easy to use. It became clear that you had to contact large numbers of people very quickly.”
Not only is speed of communication important, but with six elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools ? one of them jointly operated ? as well as a Senior Academy, differentiation of message is critical as well.
“We can make AlertNow calls and be a lot more specific,” explains Petraits. “Say we have to close schools midday. We can be specific about times and reasons for the closures. It avoids the need for parents calling in to find out what’s going on. It provides us an opportunity to give faster and more strategic information to people who need it.”
When news of the H1N1 virus emerged, BCSC acted quickly to stem anxieties using AlertNow. First, administrators notified families that they were prepared for the possibility of an H1N1 outbreak in the district. Later, when it became known that the Indiana Department of Health planned to vaccinate students at school, another message was delivered regarding consent forms. When all the forms weren’t received, BCSC again used AlertNow. “At the high school, we had 600 parents as of the deadline that did not send the consent form back,” says Petraits. “Now who can sit down and call 600 parents? We sent out an AlertNow call targeted specifically to those individuals to remind them.”
Recently, there were some cases of pertussis (whooping cough) identified in the district. Highly contagious and easily spread, BCSC used AlertNow to notify those families at risk and prevent both an outbreak and undue stress. “There was no need to alert everyone, which would just raise the anxiety level of all families,” says Petraits. “We have been able to create notifications to those schools where cases have occurred to let people quickly know that there has been a case, these are the symptoms, and that you might want to contact your physician to make sure your child’s shots are up-to-date.”
While its use for such everyday communications has allowed BCSC to go paperless and save over $100,000 in printing, paper, and distribution costs, its use for sensitive health issues has highlighted how AlertNow can be used strategically. “It’s easy for information to spin out of control,” concludes Petraits. “We are making sure that the right people get the right information as quickly as possible.”