LTUSD snow day: Phone system helps spread the word

Snow days are made easier with the help of an automated phone system

Jeff Munson
Photo Illustration by Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ The automated snow-phone system was used for the first time Tuesday for Lake Tahoe Unified and Douglas County school districts.

It was the kind of Lake Tahoe winter telephone call from school that children wanted their parents to hear: an LTUSD snow day phone call.

Nearly 3,500 parents and teachers at South Shore received the succinct telephone message between 5:50 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. announcing the cancellation of school for the day because of bad weather.

 “Other than it was really early in the morning, I think it’s wonderful,” said Pam Singer, who was awakened at 5:55 a.m. by the recorded message. The Meyers parent has two children who attend school within Lake Tahoe Unified School District.

The automated phone system was established by LTUSD and the Douglas County School District last year. While there had been trial runs alerting parents to absentees or school bus route changes, Tuesday was the first day the phone software had been used in such a widespread way by both districts. It was also the first snow day of the school year for both districts.

LTUSD is a member of Connect-Ed, and Douglas County is a member of Edulink Systems. Among other things, both systems enable the districts to generate phone messages to parents alerting them of school closures.

“Connect Ed allows us to do mass telephone calls in a 35-minute time frame for emergencies, snow days or for attendance purposes,” said Jim Tarwater, LTUSD superintendent. “We think it is very helpful. Besides e-mail, voice mail is a good method of communicating.”

 The district paid about $15,000 for the software and has a membership to use it whenever it wants, not just during winter in Lake Tahoe. Douglas County bought its software for about $7,000 as a trial run for its Tahoe schools only, with the idea of expanding the software’s database over time at its valley schools, said Rich Alexander, assistant superintendent of human resources for Douglas County.

The Nevada school district agreed to the software after one of its valley middle schools was evacuated because of mercury contamination two years ago.

The software for both systems keeps track of how many calls were made and the success and failure rate of making telephone connections. On Tuesday, 3,020 phone calls were made to South Lake Tahoe and Meyers, while 405 calls were made on the Nevada side to homes in Stateline, Zephyr Cove, Round Hill and Cave Rock.

 The success rate for the LTUSD snow day calls was 90.9 percent, with 191 calls unable to be made because of disconnections or busy signals. In Douglas County, 325 of the 405 calls were delivered, giving it an 80.2 percent success rate.

Tarwater and Alexander said their respective districts will track the numbers unable to go through to ensure the districts have all current phone numbers for emergencies.

 In the future, LTUSD hopes to use the automated phone system to alert parents to serious matters such as school emergencies, evacuations or missing students, or smaller matters such as back-to-school nights,r teacher-parent meetings or other winter activities in Lake Tahoe the schools may have.

 Denise Pillsbury, a Sierra House kindergarten teacher who has two children at South Tahoe Middle School, was already awake when she received the call at around 6 a.m. She said the phone line is a good idea for those who don’t bother checking school closures on radio, television or Web sites.

 “It was a little early for the message and it sounded, well, very automated, with the message saying do not send your children to school. But for those parents who need it, it’s a good idea.”

Originally published in the March 14, 2006, issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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