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SMS for SOS – is your school prepared for the unexpected?

11 November 2020 Katie Sixsmith

In times of change, reacting quickly is vital. Your school should be a safe environment for your students, but when the unexpected happens, it’s important to be prepared. 

Whether the crisis is a flood, an accident, a snow day or a lockdown, it’s vital that you know what to do so that your students stay safe and your parent community is reassured. 

Define your emergency  

You don’t want to be sending out communications every day, so make sure you have a defined list of what is classed as an emergency.  

Of course, there will always be occasions, like the 2020 pandemic, where there won’t be a defined precedent, but it’s important that staff know which scenarios require quick and efficient communication with parents.

Examples of an emergency can include, but are not limited to: 

  • School closure for severe weather, water leaks or boiler failure 
  • Cancellation of after-school activities due to staff shortages 
  • Late arrival back from a school trip 
  • An accident or incident within school whereby a child needs collection 

Choose your communication method 

In an emergency, any communication you send needs to be sent and received promptly and via a method that parents are likely to notice immediately (or within a fairly short time period).  

Whilst email communication is good for general messages or post-incident debriefs, it is not ideal in an emergency. This is because many people may not have access to that account during the working day or even regularly check their emails at all.  

SMS for schools is an essential method of communication for urgent situations where you need to get hold of someone quickly. SMS open rates are much higher than those of email, the delivery is almost instantaneous and as many people always have a mobile phone on them, this method has a much higher rate of success.  

You could also consider sending a push notification through your school mobile app however open rates will vary depending on how many users have downloaded the app and have notifications enabled. 

Adding an update or urgent news banner to your school website can help to signpost parents to additional information, but this should not be used as a standalone method. There is no guarantee that all parents will think to check your website in an emergency, and they are not likely to be doing this as a matter of course throughout the day.  

Compose your message 

Any message you send in an emergency needs to be short, to the point and easy to understand.  

Remember that in an unexpected scenario, you are sharing information which is going to require a change in action by the recipient – whether that’s taking a day off work, sorting out alternative childcare or dropping everything to collect their child.  

The message should explain what the situation is, what they need to do and when they need to do it.  

If you’re sending an SMS message, the content should ideally fit within the standard-length limit of 160 characters. Although most modern phones and networks can handle multiple messages and make them look like one complete text, it’s still best practice to keep it as short as possible to ensure the message gets delivered and read by the recipient. 

If it’s appropriate and you need to share additional information, why not consider adding a link to an article on your school website where they can find out extra details, or signpost them to your social media account if you’re using this to communicate real-time updates.

Agree your systems and processes 

As part of your emergency plan, you should agree who is responsible for: 

  • Activating the plan
  • Overseeing the situation 
  • Sending out the communications
  • Following up afterwards

This will help to prevent duplication of messages, ensure consistency and hopefully reduce any confusion or misinformation.  

You also need to confirm which systems will be used and ensure the relevant members of staff have up to date training on how to use them. Consider using an SMS or email system which is synced with your MIS data to ensure your contacts are up to date and you have the most recent details for your community. 

The speed and accuracy of your response is essential before rumours start to spread – making it harder to manage. Being prepared for the unexpected will mean you will be better placed to handle any situation should it arise. 

Determine your follow-up procedure 

Once you have confirmed your processes and sent your initial communications, it’s time to plan the next response. 

You will need to send regular updates to your community, advising parents on what is happening and keeping them informed of the next steps. This will prevent them from chasing you for more details and reassure them that you are in control of the situation.  

Once the emergency is over then it’s time to debrief, evaluate and re-establish normality.  

You should send a more detailed update by email or letter to parents, outlining what the incident was, how you dealt with it and the outcome. You should also include any preventative measures for next time (if applicable) and encourage them to get in touch if they have any concerns or questions.  

Showing your community that you are quickly, efficiently and professionally able to deal with an emergency whilst keeping them up to date, is vital for maintaining trust and keeping lines of communication open between home and school.

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