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Communicating through the COVID-19 response

June, 2020

Schools and early childhood centres talk about how they utilised School-links Emergency Alerts during the COVID-19 lockdown

We spoke to a number of our schools and early childhood centres to see how they used School-links during the COVID-19 response, both to inform our own ongoing platform development, and to share good practice with other organisations.

The build-up: sharing information to quell the fear

As the pandemic ramped up across the globe, schools began to see the number of queries from parents and caregivers increase. Megan Chisholm, Office Manager at Newlands School in Wellington recalls, “Even a week or so away from lockdown, we could feel that the school community was starting to panic and we were getting a lot more questions. We had already received a couple of Ministry of Education guidelines, so we used the School-links email notification service to forward these onto parents to keep them in the loop.”

Julie Dawick, Deputy Principal at Cambridge Middle School, agrees and explains how they took full advantage of the multi-channel nature of School-links, “We texted parents to say check your emails for further information and this alerted some caregivers that we had the wrong email address which we could then put right before the situation escalated.”

Megan also appreciated School-links Early Notification (EN) system, “The Monday before lockdown many families didn’t send their kids to school. A lot didn’t contact us with everything that was going on, but I was able to use the EN system.” This systems sends texts and emails to the caregivers of students marked absent without explanation, “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to chase up a third of the school without that, especially as we were preparing for the Prime Minister’s announcement.”

Shifting from Level 3 to 4: pre-empting the situation

“That Monday felt almost scary,” reflects Megan, “We knew we were all going to be hearing the news at exactly the same time so we could potentially be inundated with queries. So, we pre-empted the situation and sent out a text to all caregivers to say that we would be in touch shortly.” This gave the management team time to make a plan, “Then we sent out a multi-channel message, on text and email, to announce that the school would be closing except for the children of essential workers. We advised them that we would forward official information via email as soon as it came available.” The parents of essential workers were also able to quickly and easily respond to let us know if their child would be attending.

Rachel from Woolston Pre-School in Christchurch was also able to swiftly contact her families, “Obviously COVID-19 was a situation we hadn’t been in before, and an emergency situation, so it all happened quite quickly.” It soon became apparent after the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Centre needed to send out a communication to families alerting them that they would be closed the following day, “I was a wee bit panicked about how I was going to keep them updated but we just used the text messaging in School-links. It was really good. I could keep everybody informed and I could send links through it to further information.”

Level 4 – lockdown: communicating for well-being

Newlands Primary School used the School-links email platform to stay in touch with their community, reassuring them that the students’ wellbeing and mental health was a priority. As soon as they had  a plan in place for online learning, they shared the information with caregivers and gave specific times to the families for when the teachers would be in contact. Megan stresses, “Having a reliable communication system that syncs with our management system edge was invaluable. It meant that all the new students who were starting our school in term two were seamlessly receiving all the communications too. It just made my life so much easier.”

For Cambridge Middle School too, School-links meant that everyone was connected. Julie explains, “We used School-links to share all communications that were relevant to parents, and always texted to alert them to check their emails. School-links meant that our comms were relevant, on time and to the point. It provided such reassurance for the community at what was a very difficult time.”

Moving out of lockdown: administration made simple

The main issue for schools as the country moved back into level three was finding out the numbers of students who would be attending. Megan again found the text alert system critical, “We used the text option again at this point, with a link to an online form that made it easy for parents. We had so many positive comments about our communication.”

Rachel had the same response from her early childhood parents, “I have had a lot of feedback from the families saying that it was great, that we kept them up to date and they knew what was happening.”

Reflection: it was all about reassurance – and time

For Megan there were two clear benefits of School-links Emergency Alerts. Firstly, the school had time to craft the content, rather than worry about how they were going to get communications out, and secondly it gave the community peace of mind, “They knew that they didn’t have to chase us. We hardly had any queries because we were able to keep right on top of it.”

Julie describes School-links as pivotal for the communication strategy at Cambridge Middle School, “It would have been absolutely onerous without it.  When we moved into level four, we knew we had everything in place and were just waiting to press go. And that feeling of reassurance spread to our community too.”

With thanks to Cambridge Middle School, Newlands Primary School and Woolston Pre-School.

Learn more about Emergency Alerts

edge school: ‘we’ve got this’ during police lockdown

June, 2020

School-links Emergency Alerts keep community informed

Cambridge Middle School went into lockdown in February, at approximately 2.45pm, just prior to the end of the school day. The lockdown stemmed from a call from the police to advise of a police operation near the school. They recommended that Cambridge Middle along with three other schools go into lockdown as a precautionary measure.

The school took immediate action upon receiving this advice and the school was locked down with all staff and students remaining inside the buildings until they were notified as to when they could come out of lockdown. The lockdown ended at approximately 3.30pm without incident.

The school utilised School-links to keep the community up to date on the situation. The automated daily data synchronisation between edge and School-links meant that all contact information was up to date. Parents, caregivers – and staff – were able to be informed via text message and email within minutes, and kept informed as to further developments. Approximately 1400 messages were sent on multiple communication channels in a couple of clicks. Critically, it meant that parents who had already come to collect their children remained in their vehicles and didn’t interfere with the work of the emergency services.

Cambridge Middle School received wholly positive feedback from relieved parents and caregivers, who did not have to search social media for the latest information but were able to rely on clear and accurate messaging from the school leadership team.

Julie Dawick, Deputy Principal at Cambridge Middle School says of School-links, “Just do it. You have to be prepared for situations that are outside of your control. It was so reassuring that we had School-links. We knew we’d got this and could concentrate on the situation at hand.”

Learn more about the features School-links adds to the edge platform

Learn more about Emergency Alerts

In a school lockdown, fast, easy-to-use and reliable communications are essential

October, 2019

 

Schools are where children go to learn. That’s their primary function, but the logistics involved with so many people in one location – most of them children – means that imparting knowledge is just one of the challenges faced by school management teams. Student safety is, of course, paramount. Whether it’s a fire in one of the buildings or a chemical leak in a lab, there are procedures in place to keep the kids safe.

When the safety of children is an issue while at school, the natural response of any parent or caregiver is to use whatever means necessary to find out if they’re OK. This is especially true of lockdowns, when access in and out of the school has been stopped. Not knowing what’s happening is very stressful, so if a lockdown occurs, schools need a fast, easy-to-use and reliable communications solution that lets everyone know what’s happening.

On March 15, 2019, Christchurch schools would face that very crisis as a mass shooting erupted at two of the city’s mosques. With the gunman on the loose – and indeed, doubt as to how many gunmen there might be – Christchurch schools went into immediate lockdown and activated their emergency communications procedures.

For those currently using the School-links solution, the Emergency Alert System went into action. It’s a tool for Senior Leadership Teams that can be used remotely when access to their current systems are not available. The system does three main things:

  • Notifies parents and caregivers by app or text message of what’s happening
  • Makes sure everyone gets those crucial messages
  • Keeps schools in control and focusing on student safety

The Emergency Alert System is reliable and easy to use. Its designated emergency channel allows schools to quickly communicate with parents and caregivers during a lockdown. Currently, over 500 New Zealand schools and Early Childhood Centres use the Emergency Alert system when they need to get a message through to parents urgently and reliably.

The Emergency Alert System meant that, during the March 15 crisis, parents and caregivers knew their children were safe and protected, that the school was in lockdown, and that when the all-clear was given, they would be notified immediately.

Following the all-clear after the shootings, Hagley Community College Director Jenni Holden commented on what it had meant for the College to have the School-links Emergency Alert System on board. “We’re incredibly grateful that we have access to the School-links Emergency app,” she said. “It was crucial in communicating with our school community yesterday quickly and efficiently, with several messages sent through the app. I know it’s an absolute tragedy and no-one wants to think about the possibilities of these emergency events happening but knowing that we have your support and great systems to back us up makes it a lot easier. Thanks everyone – you made a difference and helped allay a lot of parents’ fears yesterday.”

With the Emergency Alert System, a school isn’t relying on power or on-site computer access. It means that a mass message can be sent rather than trying to get in touch with everyone individually, and the school can tell at a glance if that message didn’t get through to anyone, so they can try and contact them another way.

As Jenni said, we don’t like to think about emergencies and disasters happening, but the fact is that they do. For the safety of students and staff, emergency procedures are critical, and that includes a reliable, innovative, and easy-to-use communications solution.

To find out more about how we can help your school to improve its emergency communications procedures, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

4 emergency communication must-haves for early childhood centres

March, 2018

emergency communication for early childhood centres

Cyclone season is upon us and singing “rain, rain go away, come again another day…” isn’t likely to stop it.

Disruptive weather, natural disasters and other emergencies aren’t uncommon experiences for Kiwi children at early learning centres. That’s why a water-tight communication strategy comes in handy, when it’s not business-as-usual for your centre.

Parents need to be informed quickly and effectively during a disruptive weather event if:

  • You decide to not open your centre that day
  • You need to close the centre during a week day unexpectantly
  • There are potential hazards when travelling to the centre (e.g. road closure)
  • You feel the need to assure parents that their children are safe

Ensure your emergency communication strategy includes the following:

#1 Release guidelines

If a centre has to be evacuated during the day, it is important to include ‘release guidelines’ in your emergency communication plan, which should not only guide the staff on when and to whom to release the children, but also who not to hand the children over to.

#2 Correct contact details

To maintain seamless communication with all concerned, it is imperative that your ECC keeps multiple communication mediums handy, as well as contact details of all parents.

“It certainly helps to keep relentlessly updating the contact information. A number of times we found that the numbers given to us were either out of date or incorrect. There are also special cases where children are in split custody, which makes it important for us to have the contact details of both parents.” says Nadine Bashford, centre manager at Redwood Early Childhood Centre in Christchurch.

#3 Multiple communication channels

“Earlier, in an emergency such as school closure due to snow, we would actually just come in and leave a message on the answering machine, saying that we were closed for the day. We still do that, but in addition, we can now send out texts from the School-links system,” says Rebecca, from Fairleigh Kindergarten.

The Fairleigh Kindergarten team has developed an understanding of the benefits of using different mediums of communication for different situations. They have found that e-mails are good for when they need to deliver detailed information, and sending a text to parents’ cell-phones works well when a short, urgent message needs to be sent out.

Check out this flowchart to help you decide what communication channel works best in certain situations.

#4 Reliable communication technology

During emergencies, you need reliable and robust communication mechanisms that will send out alerts to parents in the form of text messages or emails and confirm that the messages have been delivered.

Five questions all centres should be able to answer ‘yes’ to:

  1. Do we have access to up-to-date family contact details?
  2. Can we access this information off-site?
  3. Do we have the ability to send emergency messages without access to power or centre WiFi?
  4. Can we send out a message to all parents instantly?
  5. Can we confirm that parents received the message?

If you answer no to any of the above questions, it may be time to evaluate your emergency communication plan.

Rebecca at Fairleigh Kindergarten says, “I would definitely recommend having a system like School-links. It is not a very expensive system, yet it gives us and the parent’s peace of mind. It is helpful to respond to parents with confidence when they come in and ask what sort of communication plans we have in place, and to be able to tell them that we have School-links and all their contact details are loaded in to it.”

The School-links Emergency Alert App is a reliable, easy and fast way to communicate parents during an emergency from any computer or smart device. Over 500 New Zealand early childhood centres and schools use School-links Emergency Alert when they need to get a message through to parents urgently and reliably.

Watch the video below or visit the Emergency Alerts page for more information.

Is your school emergency messaging strategy prehistoric?

February, 2018

Is your school emergency messaging strategy prehistoric?

The Jurassic Park movie would have ended a lot differently if the park coordinators had come up with a more robust emergency plan in the event of the power going out.

Although school emergency communication strategies don’t really need to plan for ‘in the event of cloned dinosaurs escaping’, we recommend for New Zealand schools to have reliable communication methods in place for the following situations:

  • Epidemic outbreaks
  • Floods
  • Cyclones
  • Fires
  • Earthquakes
  • Snow storms
  • Lock downs
  • Power outages

A student management system alone is not sufficient for emergencies

During an emergency or other disruptive event, schools are not only responsible for the safety of students, but also for communicating with parents to inform them of the situation and give them peace of mind.

For a few of these situations, (like epidemic outbreaks), it is probable that you would still have easy access to the school building and therefore, the computers. In this case, a messaging system from your SMS would suffice.

However, what if there was a power cut or the WiFi went out? What if there was a fire, earthquake or lockdown and you couldn’t access the school office? Would you still be able to get a message out to all parents quickly and easily using your SMS?

Real emergencies need purpose-built emergency messaging

New Zealand schools are generally confident with their method of communication…until an actual emergency occurs, and they realise there’s serious areas that need improvement.

This is precisely what happened to Wiremu Elliot, Principal of Lytton High School in Gisborne.

“We’ve got this list of every student and their family phone numbers in KAMAR, but that would be a nightmare to call or text everyone individually,” says Wiremu. “We had all these emergency processes but had never actually had to do a real one, it’s always been drills. So when it actually happened, that really highlighted the need to find a better way of getting that more personal contact.”

There was also the concern of trying to communicate to parents without power or access to school computers.

“It’s easy to post a message on Facebook but in an emergency what if we don’t have access to a computer? What if we have to evacuate?” questions Wiremu, “We were looking for smarter ways to do this.”

You can read more about Lytton High School’s emergency communication transformation in their case study.

Wiremu raised some good points.

It is important for your school have an easy strategy to inform parents about a closure or emergency that doesn’t rely on power or onsite computer access. It is much simpler to send out a mass message rather than contact each family individually. You also need visibility of any parents who did not receive your message and try to contact them another way. All these necessities can be accomplished through the right technology and processes being put in place.

How do you know if your communication channels are a bit ‘prehistoric’? Ask yourself the following.

Five questions to ask about your school communication strategy

  1. Do we have access to up-to-date family contact details?
  2. Can we access this information off-site?
  3. Do we have the ability to send emergency messages without access to power or school WiFi?
  4. Does our methodology allow us to send out a message to all parents instantly?
  5. Can we confirm that parents received the message?

If you answer no to any of the above questions, it may be time to evaluate your emergency communication plan.

The School-links Emergency Alert App is a reliable, easy to use and fast way to communicate parents during an emergency from your smart phone. Over 500 New Zealand schools and Early Childhood Centres are able to use School-links Emergency Alert system when they need to get a message through to parents urgently and reliably.

Watch the video below or visit the Emergency Alerts page for more information.

The calm during the storm: how communication tools can minimise disruption to your school community

August, 2017

Most of New Zealand has been battered by storms over the last few weeks, from ice and snow closing roads to rain causing flooding, slips and states of emergency being declared across multiple cities and regions.

Fortunately for schools, a lot of this disruption happened during the school holidays. However, forecasters predict that we will likely experience more wild weather this winter, and with the grounds already saturated, it won’t take much to unsettle things again.

Emergency communications checklistDownload the New Zealand school emergency communication check-list.

It is a timely reminder for New Zealand schools to review their communications plans around disruptive weather events, and how they can could impact their school community – such as forced closures or creating dangerous travel conditions. Trying to understand how the the school community reacted to any unscheduled school closures, weather warnings and emergencies is useful:

  • Did parents understand that texts and emails are also school channels of communication and did not clog the phonelines ringing in?
  • Was the school able to warn parents about hazards or road closures that could affect their travel time to school?
  • Did staff understand their responsibilities when flooding made it evident the school needed to close immediately?
  • Did the school have reliable technology and processes in place to quickly reassure parents and communicate actions to take?

If you answered no to any of these questions, may need to implement a system that allows you to communicate to your school community in a quick, efficient and cost-effective manner. School administrators need to be the calm during the storm and ease concerns of parents, students and staff by keeping them updated and informed.

To help encourage effortless communication no matter the situation your school is facing, make sure your plan has the following features:

1. Remote access

Having remote access to a contacts list database will allow staff to access contact details immediately, wherever they may be. The easiest way to do this is by having your database accessible online. This way you don’t need to send anyone in to the school to send out a message – you just need access to the internet.

2. The ability to send one mass message

The most efficient way to notify parents of your school’s closure is to send out one mass notification message to a whole database. Sending an e-mail or text message, rather than relying on website notifications or phone trees, will save a lot of time and resources.

3. Delivery reports

Delivery reports are confirmations that show when each parent receives the text or e-mail. This will notify school staff of any parent who hasn’t received the message and alert them to take action to contact them by another communication channel.

4. Parents have confidence the school will contact them

Constantly remind parents that in the event of a school closure, the school will notify them. If parents do not know that they will be contacted by you, many will attempt to call the school to find out what is happening, resulting in the school phone system being inundated with calls and extra stress put on administration staff.

Being prepared now will save you from having even more stress during an already disruptive situation in the future. Click here to learn more about Newlands School’s experience during the Wellington 2016 earthquake and flooding and how they were able to “stomp on the rumours” and confusion at the time by using effective communication tools.

Learn more about school emergency procedures and lessons New Zealand schools have learned, in the white paper ‘Kia Kaha! Staying in control and effectively responding to emergencies at school’.

How to use the School-links Emergency Alerts App – Android

July, 2017

The School-links Emergency Alerts App allows schools to quickly and easily contact parents, caregivers, students and staff in an emergency. This video shows you how to use the App.

 

How to use the School-links Emergency Alerts App – Android from Andrew Balfour on Vimeo.

This short video created by School-links demonstrates how to use the Emergency Alerts app on your smartphone or tablet.

Use the Emergency Alerts App to send text messages to staff, caregivers and students in minutes. You will then receive real-time delivery reports to enable you to identify parents who may need to be contacted by phone or email.

If you are unable to enter the school building or if the school network has taken a hit, you can use any smart device on the mobile network.

Examples of use include:

  • school closures
  • natural disasters
  • alerting staff and students to a lockdown unobtrusively

Accessing the Emergency Alerts App

  1. Tap the ‘My Schools’ app icon on your smartphone or tablet.
  2. Tap your School-links account. Note: the first time you log in you will be asked for your username and password, but from then on you will just need your pin code.
  3. If you are linked to more than one school, you will see all the schools listed.
  4. Choose the appropriate school and select ‘Visit as ‘Master’ and your previous messages will display, if any.

How to type an alert

  1. Tap the plus symbol in the top right corner.
  2. Type a message up to 160 characters.
  3. Include the school name or a recognised shortcode, preferably at the beginning of the message, so that parents have confidence about the source and can identify which child/school the message concerns.
  4. Note: in a critical emergency situation, you may not have time to review replies. We recommend that if you have characters available then add ‘Do Not Reply’ or similar.
  5. Click ‘Save’ to come back to the message later or click ‘Save and send’ to broadcast the message immediately.

How to send an alert

  1. First, select your target audience. You can select more than one. Tap again to de-select if you make a mistake. Note that you cannot drill down any further e.g. to year level – messages will simply be sent to everyone in this category.
  2. To send, tap ‘Broadcast Now’. You cannot stop the message after this point. If you do want to edit it before broadcasting, select the back arrow in the top left.
  3. Once you have tapped ‘broadcast’, you will see the message at the top of the list of messages. It will say ‘pending’. After a few moments, if you refresh your screen or go back to the Visit as Master screen and select ‘visit as master’ the message status will say ‘broadcast’.
  4. If you have saved a message previously, it will show up in this list as a draft. You can tap on the message to edit it or broadcast it.

How to access the delivery report

  1. To access a delivery report, log in as previously and tap on the message.
  2. You will see how many were delivered successfully, how many failed and any replies, if you requested a reply.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us via our online support forum or free phone number.

How to use the School-links Emergency Alerts App – iPhone/iPad

July, 2017

The School-links Emergency Alerts App allows schools to quickly and easily contact parents, caregivers, students and staff in an emergency. This video shows you how to use the App.

How to use the School-links Emergency Alerts App – Apple/iPhone/iPad from Andrew Balfour on Vimeo.

This short video created by School-links demonstrates how to use the Emergency Alerts app on your iPhone or iPad.

Use the Emergency Alerts App to send text messages to staff, caregivers and students in minutes. You will then receive real-time delivery reports to enable you to identify parents who may need to be contacted by phone or email.

If you are unable to enter the school building or if the school network has taken a hit, you can use any smart device on the mobile network.

Examples of use include:

  • school closures
  • natural disasters
  • alerting staff and students to a lockdown unobtrusively

Accessing the Emergency Alerts App

  1. Tap the ‘My Schools’ app icon on your iphone or ipad.
  2. Note: the first time you log in you will be asked for your username and password, but from then on you will just need your pin code.
  3. If you are linked to more than one school, you will see all the schools listed.
  4. Choose the appropriate school and select ‘Visit as Master User’ and your previous messages will display, if any.

How to type an alert

  1. Tap the ‘new message’ icon in the top right corner
  2. Type a message up to 160 characters.
  3. Include the school name or a recognised shortcode, preferably at the beginning of the message, so that parents have confidence about the source and can identify which child/school the message concerns.
  4. Note: in a critical emergency situation, you may not have time to review replies. We recommend that if you have characters available then add ‘Do Not Reply’ or similar.
  5. Click ‘Save’ to come back to the message later or click ‘Save and broadcast’ to send the message immediately.

How to send an alert

  1. First, select your target audience. You can select more than one. Tap again to de-select if you make a mistake. Note that you cannot drill down any further e.g. to year level – messages will simply be sent to everyone in this category.
  2. To send, tap ‘Broadcast’. You cannot stop the message after this point. If you do want to edit it before broadcasting, select back to ‘Alerts’ in the top left.
  3. Once you have tapped ‘broadcast’, you will see the message and the status will read ‘queued for broadcast’. After a few moments, if you refresh your screen by dragging it down the message status will say ‘broadcast’.
  4. If you have saved a message previously, it will show up in this list as a draft. You can tap on the message to edit it or broadcast it.

How to access the delivery report

  1. To access a delivery report, log in as previously and tap on the message.
  2. You will see how many were delivered successfully, how many failed and any replies, if you requested a reply. As before you can drag the screen down to refresh.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us via our online support forum or free phone number.

 

How to download the School-links Emergency Alerts App for Apple

July, 2017

How to download the School-links Emergency Alerts App – Apple from Andrew Balfour on Vimeo.

This short video created by School-links demonstrates how to download the Emergency Alerts app to your iPhone or iPad.

Note: to send email and text messages using the Emergency Alerts App you will need a Master level account in School-links. You should obtain this from School-links support prior to downloading the app.

  • To find the App open the Play Store on your device and select ‘search’
  • Type ‘School-links’ (It is important to include the hyphen as there is another unrelated app also called ‘school links.’)
  • You will see ‘School-links Emergency Admin’
  • Tap on this to proceed.
  • Now tap on ‘install’
  • You now have the App and will see the sign in screen. There will also be a School-links icon on your phone.
  • Now you can log in and get started

If you have any questions or wish to create a Master Level account please contact School-links support.

How to download the School-links Emergency Alerts App for Android

July, 2017

This short video created by School-links demonstrates how to download the Emergency Alerts app to your Android phone or tablet.

Note: to send email and text messages using the Emergency Alerts App you will need a Master level account in School-links. You should obtain this from School-links support prior to downloading the app.

  • To find the App open the Play Store on your device and select search.
  • Type School-links. It is important to include the hyphen as there is another unrelated app also called ‘school links.’
  • You will see ‘School-links Emergency Admin’ (by Devine Systems Ltd, a School-links contractor).
  • Tap on this to proceed.
  • Now tap on ‘install’.
  • You now have the App and will see the sign in screen. There will also be a School-links icon on your phone.
  • Now you can log in and get started.

If you have any questions or wish to create a Master Level account please contact School-links support.