The Jessamine County school district’s communication system was put to the test last week as severe weather threatened the area twice, both times when students were scheduled to be headed home on buses.
Schools were set for early dismissal on a scheduled half day last Wednesday, Feb. 29, when Jessamine County received a tornado warning as a storm approached from the southwest. Buses with elementary-schoolers hit the road after the warning passed, but a second tornado warning forced them to find the nearest safe location to stop, superintendent Lu Young said.
“It was, no pun intended, a perfect storm,” she said. “We had an early release, so the first time the warning came through was when preschool was getting out, so we had to hold the preschoolers; then it was time for everybody to get out for the early release. We get the elementary kids going, and then the warning sirens go off again; at that point, we directed all buses with elementary students on them to go to the nearest school building.”
The storms passed without any major damage, and all students were delivered safely. But many parents were confused about the messages they were receiving through the district’s One Call Now notification system, with many unsure if their children were on the road during the second tornado warning and some receiving the call announcing a delayed release once their children were already home.
“Our plan is whenever we have an early release or a delayed release, we let parents know,” Young said. “Our buses are actually very regimented, and folks can count on what time they expect their kids to be delivered home, so we didn’t want to panic parents, so we started the One Call system. But it was for all five elementary schools plus the Early Learning Village, and it couldn’t handle that number of calls in an hour-and-a-half turnaround time, so we did get word from parents who had gotten the notification after their child had already arrived home.”
The system delivers a recorded message with a phone call and has several phone numbers to try for each student, going back and calling again if there is no answer.
Young said another issue at play last Wednesday was that the system could not send out multiple messages quickly as the situation changed.
“I did hear one person was fussing that we didn’t turn around and make a One Call Now that said the elementary buses have been called back to the school, but it was still making the first round of calls, so that would have been fruitless,” she said.
Paul Hamann, the district’s chief operations officer, said the system took 19 minutes last Wednesday to make all its first attempts at calling elementary-school parents and then 14 minutes to make all the first attempts at middle- and high-school parents. More calls were made after that on subsequent attempts.
School officials had more time to consider their response to Friday’s severe weather, which had been anticipated since the day before to hit in the afternoon. Young initially said Friday morning that the district was unlikely to do an early release, but schools dismissed students two hours early after the expected window for severe weather moved closer to the late afternoon and evening. One Call Now called about 10,000 numbers Friday, Hamann said, making all the first attempts in 27 minutes.
“Wednesday was more difficult than Friday, because we had multiple messages going out to different levels,” Hamann said. “Friday was easier from a message standpoint because it was two hours earlier for everybody. The difficulty (Wednesday) was in having to send unique messages for different levels.”
Young said communication was “at the heart of” the early-release decision Friday as the district sought to be proactive in getting information out to parents.
“This is an age where folks are so used to ubiquitous communication that we’re trying to do everything we can to keep up with the kind of instant-notification expectations that parents have, and I think those are fair expectations,” she said. “We just need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be as timely in that as we can be.”
One Call Now got another workout Monday as schools closed because of road conditions after several inches of snow overnight. The snow day means the schools will use their second scheduled make-up day Friday, May 25, and that would be the last day of school if no more make-up days are needed.