Many parents are being alerted of school closings, delays via e-mails, text messages and automated phone calls

When school's out, tech's in

February 16, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt and Mary Gail Hare | Laura Barnhardt and Mary Gail Hare,sun reporters

Deb Merlock didn't have to sit in front of the television or by the radio to learn that Harford County schools were closed. She didn't have to turn on her computer or even get out of bed.

All the Abingdon mother of four had to do was answer her phone.

The information that schools were closing this week came through a new computerized phone service by the Harford County school system - just one of the ways that technology has been working this week in the Baltimore area to spread weather-related information.

Many schools and some day care centers use a system called School's Out, which relays the information to parents via e-mail and, more recently, as text messages on cell phones.

In Howard County, residents can see whether nearby roads have been plowed or salted, thanks to a computerized satellite tracking system updated every 15 minutes on the government Web site. And in Baltimore County, some parents receive voice mails from their children's schools, similar to the messages sent by Harford County schools.

"What a great tool this is for parents," Merlock said. "I love it."

When many school systems and offices are closing - and the information trickles in at different times - it's sometimes tricky to catch the one you're looking for on television or the radio, said Ian Warshak, president of Schoolsout.com, a service created in 1996 by a group of Frederick parents frustrated by difficulties in getting school closing information during Hurricane Fran.

Many schools and media outlets post closing information on their Web sites, but there are plenty of times when parents may not be in front of a television or at a computer to see the Web updates or read e-mails, Warshak said, explaining why more parents are turning to the text message service and more school systems are offering to call parents using automated systems.

More than 80 private schools in Maryland, more than two dozen day care centers and colleges and most of the public school systems in the Baltimore area, including Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, and Carroll counties send their closing information to Schoolsout.com. The Web site then notifies the affected parents. The e-mail portion of the service is free, with about 300,000 subscribers in 17 states and Washington.

Schoolsout.com is in its second year of offering to send text messages to parents' phones - for an annual fee of $14.95 per school or school system.

Frederick County public school system offers its own e-mail notification system, called Find Out First. And a regional service, called Eschoolnewsletter.com, based in Woodbine, also sends e-mails to parents with weather-related notices and more routine school messages.

Carmela Guthart, who has two daughters at North Carroll High School and subscribes to Eschoolnewsletter.com, has found the services helpful during snowstorms.

"What's also nice about it is that we get the morning announcements - whatever kids are hearing over the PA. Ninety-nine percent of the time they don't tell us these things," she said.

Local governments, too, are finding ways to spread important news during winter storms.

In Baltimore County, for example, emergency officials used a new feature for the first time this week that allows them to interrupt the programs being broadcast on the county's cable station with emergency information.

In Howard County, the government launched its snow plow-tracking system in 2001. By clicking on the snowflake at the county's main Web site, residents can see a detailed map showing where the public works trucks have been.

The information comes from the global positioning systems equipped on all of the trucks, said Ira Levy, the county's technology director. The system is accessed by residents about 13,000 times each year, Levy said.

In Harford County, the school system's new telephone notification system, Alert Now, made 98,000 calls to homes, offices and cell phones in 15 minutes Tuesday morning to tell parents about the early dismissal.

The $80,000 system was launched in September, but this week was the first time it was used countywide, said Don Morrison, a school spokesman.

Anne Arundel County schools are preparing to launch a similar system, said spokesman Tony Ruffin.

But officials in one Western Maryland county are, for now at least, not using a new automated calling system for early-morning notifications. That decision came after the system for Washington County mistakenly called some parents at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to a school official.

The message, not sent at the request of school officials, contained information about a school closing earlier this month, said Carol Mowen, Washington County schools spokeswoman. Another set of calls - at a more reasonable 6:30 a.m. - was sent by school officials Tuesday to tell parents about that day's school closing, Mowen said.

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