A Cape Town mom is more than a little displeased with her children’s primary school. During the recent heat wave in the Western Cape, the school cancelled athletics practice due to the extreme temperatures. The teachers went home and children, under the age of 13, had to wait alone outside the school in the heat until their parents picked them up at the time the sports practice was meant to end. The school had no way to alert the parents of the change of plans when they decided to cancel athletics at the last minute.

This unsafe situation for the children could easily have been avoided had the school implemented an SMS notification system. This is an excellent example of where SMS comes to the fore: it allows the sender to quickly reach a large number of people wherever they are, quickly and cost-effectively. In addition, SMSs are typically read as soon as they are received, ensuring the message gets across timeously. Around the world schools regularly use SMS to alert parents about snow days, preventing them from taking dangerous journeys to drop their children off at school, only to find it is closed. Closer to home the devastating floods South Africa experiences creates a similar scenario: parents and children can be saved from a potential dangerous trip past high waters and on flood-damaged roads.

It’s not only bulk communications where SMS is useful for schools. Teachers can alert parents very quickly if their child hasn’t arrived at school, either because they are absent, or because they have had an accident, fallen ill, or any number of other things that may have happened to them on their way to school.

Another way schools are using SMS is to ensure important messages, such as meeting notifications or concerns over their child’s behaviour, are sent directly to the parent and don’t risk being intercepted or lost by the child.

Schools are given the ability to send SMSs to a group of people at once via a bulk SMS provider. This makes sending SMSs as easy as sending emails – using a computer, non-technical admin staff or teachers can access address books, set up lists to target specific parents, and send either a single SMS to one parent or a group SMS to the entire school community.

Before choosing a bulk SMS provider, schools should estimate the number of SMSs they will send in the year, based on the number of children at the school, activities planned, how they expect to use SMS and also factor in unforeseen events, such as the Cape heat wave. They should look at which current communications can be replaced by SMS, and which can be supported by it: for instance the school might email out a calendar of events for the term in advance, but any changes to this can be SMSed at the last minute.

Planned correctly, SMS communications will also save schools on printing, copying and telephone costs, as well as the human costs related to contacting parents in such a labour-intensive way.

Of the several hundred schools using BulkSMS.com to send their messages, only a handful of schools spend more than R6,000 per year on sending messages. Schools should bear this in mind as a benchmark when deciding between pay-as-you-go service providers vs. paying a fixed cost for an unlimited number of SMSs – which often ends up being up to four times more expensive.

Finally schools have a duty to teach their learners more than just what is between the pages of text books, and with technology such a pervasive part of our lives, this is an excellent demonstration of efficient and cost-effective communications, using the right tools for the message. In our Cape Town mom’s case, this would have meant her primary school children were picked up safely from school at the right time, rather than left to their own devices in the blazing heat.