The company eSchool Systems LLC, which provides e-mail school newsletters to Howard County families, is moving to improve the way parents receive emergency notifications.
Parents will be able to receive text messages about school closings or delays this winter, and recent changes to the e-mail system allow news to reach parents' inboxes more quickly.
About 36,000 families in Howard County subscribe to eSchool Systems e-mail, called eSchoolnewsletters. These free eSchoolnewsletters provide a direct line of communication from schools and the central office to parents. The eSchool newsletters contain information about PTA meetings, postponed athletic events, scholarship deadlines and other things.
Most of the time, parents do not mind reading the e-mail messages a few hours after they have been created, but eSchool Systems is adding text messaging to deliver emergency messages more quickly.
"That's the kind of messages parents want so maybe they can beat their child home or have someone pick up their child or whatever their emergency arrangements are," said Patti Caplan, the school system's public information officer.
"We know that many parents have jobs or work that take them away from their computers during the day, and if we need to, for example, close schools early for inclement weather in the winter we can text message them on their cell phones," Caplan added.
Said eSchool Systems President Douglas Parker: "We'll be testing through January, and our goal is to have [text messaging] for the next snow."
Parents can add their cell phone numbers to their eSchoolnewsletter profiles online if they would like to receive these text messages.
"They can give us their cell phone number so we can start building the database," Parker said. "We're collecting the cell phone numbers now so that when it comes time to kick off the program we can text message those people and tell them the next step for signing up."
That process will include a small monthly charge.
"People who sign up for the [text messaging] service will be charged $1.66 a month or $20 for the year to eSchool Systems," Caplan said.
The fee will offset the cost of text messaging for eSchool Systems. The eSchool newsletter is paid for by local businesses.
"The school system doesn't pay anything to eSchool Systems. Community businesses sponsor eSchool," Caplan said.
eSchool Systems LLC provides the eSchoolnewsletter service in 23 Maryland counties. Parker started the eSchoolnewsletter in 2002 for Lisbon Elementary School as a concerned father of four.
"Doug Parker has been phenomenal to work with. So much of what he does is for [free]," Caplan said. "It's because it's important to him, and that's sometimes hard to find in the business world."
As part of the effort to deliver emergency messages more quickly, Parker added two servers last month.
"The first snow [Dec. 5] caught us off-guard. [E-mail notification] wasn't as fast as we would have liked," Parker said.
The time window between the decision to close schools and notifying parents is eSchool Systems' greatest challenge, Parker said.
To facilitate the process, the information is also posted on the Web site. "We also have a page where we manually put up the schedule. You don't have to wait for an e-mail," Parker said.
Even without the recent improvements, the eSchoolnewsletter has proved a valuable method of school-home communication.
"Overall, this is a pretty powerful tool," Caplan said.
"Before we had an e-mail setup like this, we'd send messages home in hard copy. Parents wouldn't get the information until their students were home. Sometimes it would just end up in the bottom of the backpack."
Caplan added that a school closing or delay "was the toughest situation."
"We relied on the media to announce emergency information, but if a parent didn't have the radio or TV on, they had no idea," she said.
However, Caplan said e-mail and text messages also have limitations.
"Even though we have 87 percent of families signed up, there are still families who don't have access to computers. We're always looking for other ways to reach all our families," she said. "We don't want to leave anyone out simply because they don't have the technology available to them."
Caplan added: "Be it student progress or safety, we are always looking for opportunities to improve our communication."
To sign up for the eSchoolnews letter or text messaging: www eschoolnewsletter.com.