Winter is here, which in Chicago normally means blustery winds, subzero temperatures and drifting snow. It also means the possibility of every kid’s dream—snow days.
For schools, it’s not only a problem to prepare for these unplanned closings and notify parents in a timely manner, it’s a mandate. The Illinois State Board of Education requires every school to have an emergency management plan for closings and other emergencies. Most schools rely on the Web or radio and television news, but some districts are going high-tech.
Wilmette School District 39 uses Connect-ED, an automated telephone system that allows school administrators to send prerecorded messages to every parent in the district.
“We can reach every family and staff member with one voice at one time,” says superintendent Max McGee, who also notifies WBBM-AM radio of closings.
Distributed by the Los Angeles-based Notification Technologies Inc., Connect-ED is not just for emergencies. “We’ve used it to invite parents to special events and to communicate with teachers,” McGee says.
After researching and hearing from McGee, Gary Catalini, superintendent of Wheaton Warrenville District 200 signed on. “It sounded like it would meet our communication needs and it has exceeded them,” he says.
Most districts cannot afford the new technology, which cost the Wilmette district about $10,500 (a penny a student per day).
Chicago Public Schools continues to use local media outlets. “We use the Emergency Closing Center, which you can check online,” says CPS spokesman Mike Vaughn. “All Chicago media are tied into that.”
Parents can search for their child’s school by name at www. emergencyclosings.com. Owned and operated by WGN Radio 720, the center notifies all local television and radio stations when a principal reports a school closing.
“There can’t really be a much better system,” Vaughn says.
“With an 85 percent poverty rate among CPS families, there are not a lot of computers, so TV and radio are the best outlets.”
Despite the extra cost of the Connect-ED system, superintendent McGee believes the system is worth the money and soon will be more affordable.
“There are opportunities for federal grant money and it’s only going to get cheaper in the long run,” he says.
“You’ll see more interest from big school systems as they realize the importance of engaging parents.”