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Going Back to School With Integrated, Streamlined Communications

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Five Key Criteria for Selecting the Right Technology Solution for Communications and Notifications

Like so many others, educators across the country struggled with the hurried transition to a fully remote work environment as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in 2020. Now, with in-person classes resuming for the 2021 school year, both K-12 and higher education institutions must confront yet another challenge fueled with an even greater sense of urgency by the pandemic: emergency preparedness and communication.

Most would concede that emergency preparedness was difficult enough prior to COVID-19. Planning and coordination had to address a wide range of risks — from severe weather events to terrorist attacks to active shooter incidents. The pandemic, along with the potential for political protests and social unrest, have served to further complicate such efforts. New and unforeseen issues such as social distancing and contact tracing must now be added to the list of considerations.

Just as the emergency risk environment is complex and multifaceted, so are the related communication needs. And while technological advances have increased the number of ways by which educators can communicate with students, parents and colleagues, the multiplicity of communication tools and platforms presents significant integration and compatibility obstacles.

In many cases, the absence of a shared communication tool or platform has exacerbated the challenge of providing timely news, information and updates to students and parents, resulting in sometimes inconsistent, unreliable or confusing communications that further created undue added stress and anxiety. If a similar scenario were to play out during a crisis scenario, the consequences would almost surely be more damaging — perhaps even life-threatening.


In such an environment, it is not surprising that in a recent national survey 300 staff from K-12 and higher education institutions cited COVID-related safety measures overwhelmingly as the top safety concern for the upcoming school year. Additionally, both groups reported that reaching and notifying students and/or parents was the single greatest crisis communication challenge.1

Other key related challenges cited in the survey included: messages not being received; issues sending targeted messages to specific groups or locations rather than the entire campus; adding timing and accurate information to messages; communicating with temporary visitors; information sharing with first responders and other key personnel; alert fatigue or the frequency of messages; and managing disparate communication systems.

According to a Frost & Sullivan research report released earlier this year, the educational field is ripe for a digital transformation involving the adoption of modern communications and collaboration technologies to improve operational efficiencies, instructor performances and the student experience. Although some organizations embraced digitization and virtual classes, the pandemic exposed the education sector’s lack of preparedness and revealed that it has taken only the initial first steps toward such a digital transformation.2

With the start of the 2021 school year, teachers and administrators are left to ponder: What can we do now to improve emergency communication and streamline related operations?


The answer can be found by looking at the solution implemented by the Round Rock Independent School District (Round Rock ISD) in southern Williamson County and northwest Travis County, Texas. With nearly 57,000 students and staff and 55 school buildings — seven high schools, 11 middle schools, 34 elementary schools and three alternative learning centers scattered over some 110 square miles — the district faced a particularly challenging emergency communication landscape.

Round Rock ISD sought a mass notification system specifically for active shooter events and weather-related threats, given Texas’ notoriety as the “tornado capital” of the United States. The solution had to seamlessly integrate with other administrative systems to avoid bottlenecks, which is vital for effective emergency planning and execution. The district further needed the ability to engage all in-building persons anywhere, at any time and across all communications channels and devices — while simultaneously adhering to stringent privacy and security standards.

The district was able to identify an effective, integrated emergency notification solution that supports its various channels and provides notifications to any Internet-connected device. The tool offers three primary types of alerts:

  1. Outdoor: via paging speakers and UHF radios.
  2. Indoor:  via PA speakers, message boards and desktop phones.
  3. Personal: via smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers via text/SMS, pop-
    ups, email and RSS/social media.

The system provides five major benefits that should be carefully considered when evaluating the merits of any potential solution:

  1. Risk Mitigation – provide the tools to effectively respond and take control when an unplanned incident or threat looms.
  2. Compliance – broadcast pertinent messages to specific individuals or groups according to roles, responsibilities and authority, or organizational policy.
  3. Reporting – capture and consolidate message responses, identifying those who were able to respond, and when, for real-time personnel and resource management.
  4. Situational Awareness – gain visibility into how the organization is responding in real time and call or page individuals and residences.
  5. Lower Total Cost of Ownership – leverage a single, integrated system for lockdowns, overhead paging, incident response and messaging employees and staff.


Using this approach as a guide, educational institutions and others can quickly and cost-effectively modernize their emergency communication system, integrating it seamlessly with virtually any existing IT ecosystem — while also maintaining the ability to continually optimize it as their IT assets expand and change. Such will help bring peace of mind to teachers, students and parents alike and foster an environment where learning can truly take center stage.

1 Rave Mobile Safety, 2021 Survey of Crisis Communication and Safety in Education

2 Frost & Sullivan, Growth Opportunities for Communications, Collaboration, and Contact Center Technologies in the Education Industry