- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

BEL AIR, Md. — Parents in Harford County don’t have to turn on the radio this winter to find out whether the latest snowstorm has closed schools.

School officials are using a new service that automatically calls students’ homes and plays a recorded message, much like the robo-calls used by political campaigns and telemarketers.

Although schools have been closed countywide by snow only once so far this year, officials say they have discovered other uses for the Web-based system, including reminders of school events and scheduled early closings.

School officials said they even used the system to alert parents of about 4,000 students who had not received newly required immunizations. Without the vaccinations, the children wouldn’t be allowed into school, so “we had all of the schools pull their data of those who were not in compliance and we send out a call,” said Teri Kranefeld, a spokeswoman for the school system.

The homes of absent students also are called automatically — at random times so a skipping student can’t easily intercept the phone call. The system inserts the student’s name into a recorded message, saving administrators time each day.

Fliers with reminders for parent-child events or other advisories don’t have to be sent home with students anymore, and messages can be recorded in various languages with each home receiving the appropriate message.

Jennifer Handlin of Fallston has a daughter, Kay-Lee, in sixth grade and a son, Patrick, in kindergarten. She said the system has helped her keep track of their schedules.

“All parents now, especially me, have a very busy schedule. So, it’s very nice to actually receive calls two, three days in advance reminding me that my child will be coming home early from school,” Mrs. Handlin said.

The school system contracted with Raleigh, N.C.-based Saf-T-Net, one of three main companies in the field, to use its AlertNow Rapid Communication Service.

Saf-T-Net President Robert Bruce said the company has contracts with 700 school districts covering about 3,000 buildings and 2 million students and the company’s Web site says its customers include school systems in Maryland, Connecticut, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

In the Washington area, private schools using the service include the Torah School of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, the Chapel Gate Academy in Marriottsville, Md., and the Boyd School in Manassas, the company said.

The phone-calling service, which costs $80,000 a year, is accessed through a Web page onto which the phone numbers, along with details such as school name and a student’s home language, are loaded, along with the messages.

Even school bus drivers have messages. “Hi, this is Norm,” the school system’s transportation manager says in one message to the bus drivers. “There will be a two-hour early dismissal today.”

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