How a Kiwi-based app became a ‘game-changer’ for schools in Covid lockdown

How a Kiwi-based app became a 'game-changer' for schools in Covid lockdown

When a frustrated Kaikōura mum first developed a parent-school communication app, she could not have known the impact it would have during the global pandemic nearly a decade later.

Tired of yoghurt-soaked permission forms at the bottom of the school bag, mum-of-two Sharlene Barnes began investigating a better platform of communication between parents and schools back in 2011.

Noticing her children were beginning to use apps, she took the idea of an app-based school information platform to developers.

“They basically laughed me out of the room but eventually one of them said to me, I think you’ve got something,” she said.

“I went from that point and I’m still with the same developer – they just really believed in me.”

The app, Skool Loop, now operates in hundreds of schools throughout New Zealand, Australia and most recently Fiji.

“It allows all communication from school to be electronic – they don’t need to use any paperwork whatsoever.

“All their newsletters are in their school app – all their notices, their push notification and normal notices.”

Although she set out only to keep parents in the loop about cross country-dates and parent/teacher interviews, Skool Loop has taken on a new level of importance during the Covid pandemic.

Melbourne’s St George Preca Catholic School Digital technologies manager Chris Skrzypko said they had introduced the app during last year’s three-month Covid lockdown, and found it a “game-changer”.

While Skrzypko had used the app in a previous school, the lockdown period heightened the need to distribute critical information en masse and at speed.

“We had it during our lockdown period,” she said.

“As much as teachers were doing their absolute utmost to stay in contact with students and families … that was a game-changer because we could get information out really quickly.”

She said an app-based platform had also proved far more efficient than other forms of communication, because people usually had their phones on them.

Skool Loop had also ensured information was easily accessible to all groups of the school community.

“One of the big strengths of this app is that it allows you to make groups,” she said.

“We actually have a group for our non-English-speaking families, so when they get information it goes out in their language.

Barnes said since Covid, their enrolment from Australian schools had “gone through the roof”.

“In lockdown in March 2020 we had 1.1 million interactions on the app for that month, and that was including over 300,000 notices sent,” she said.

“I would suggest that’s at least four or five times each school sending out community notices in lockdown.”

This would be double the notices sent during a normal month, she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic they had averaged around 10 new schools a week, within both Australia and New Zealand.

The app had also been an important platform for 27 Christchurch schools during the 2019 Mosque shootings, later for Australian schools during the Black Summer bushfires, and most recently the flooding in New South Wales last month.

With her children now adults, Barnes said she never got to personally experience the ease of digital school communication. But she now knew she had been onto something in creating the tool schools would need during the emergencies of the future.

“It’s one of those things that’s going to be ongoing, and I think that schools realise just how important it is to communicate.”