School boards push for in-person meetings

As school districts and the state grapple with the possibility of returning students to some form of in-person education, school boards are facing similar decisions about their meetings.

Since Gov. John Carney declared a state of emergency in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many school boards quickly adapted to a new format: meeting through online video platforms to conduct their monthly business. But now, some are looking to get back together — while sitting at least six feet apart.

“I don’t think we should be prepared to ask any of our people and our students to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves,” Sean Christiansen, a school board member for Capital School District, said in the board’s July meeting. “… If we’re going to expect our people to come in the buildings in August, September, October, I think we need to lead by example. I think we can do that with the facilities we have.”

Gov. Carney is expected to announce how schools can open next week, though he said Tuesday that, based on data, it would likely be hybrid instruction.

The Delaware Department of Education released guidance on returning to school earlier this month that detailed what was expected of districts in three potential scenarios — in-person, a hybrid combination of in-person and remote instruction and fully remote instruction.

With that in mind, each district and charter will make localized decisions on how it will function within those guidelines, which take into consideration social distancing, mask wearing, transportation and more.

While it’s not yet certain what students will be doing on their first day of school yet, how school boards meet has been a recent topic of conversation as they set their meeting schedules.

In Capital, the board has been meeting from their own spaces, connecting virtually. Mr. Christiansen pointed to the Dover High School auditorium as a potential meeting place, where the meeting could be livestreamed. The board typically meets in the district’s central office.

“That auditorium seats 920-some people. We could allow our average — we might surprise ourselves — but we can allow our average audience to actually social distance in that setting,” he said.

When the board approved its meeting schedule for the next year, it added that the board, when announcing its agenda for a meeting, could determine whether the meeting would be in-person or virtual dependent upon the position the state finds itself in.

It was a similar concern for Milford at the board’s July meeting.

Board member Jason Miller noted that the high school auditorium, which can seat about 900 people, would allow for a socially distant in-person meeting, while board member David Vezmar proposed having a hybrid style meeting, where the board comes together but allows for virtual public participation.

“If we can all sit at our homes and have a meeting, I can imagine we can all sit in the Central Academy Cafeteria and have the same meeting and the same people can still call in; we can still have the call-in numbers,” Mr. Vezmar said. “I feel like, if we’re having discussions about whether it’s safe to put the children in school, but we’re not feeling safe enough to have a meeting in person, the public perception of that is simply horrible. I think we should do everything we can to meet in person.”

Kevin Dickerson, superintendent for Milford School District, agreed that he prefers in person meetings with the board, but noted that it may come with a caveat.

“I miss the human aspect for us to have discussion like we usually do. I can’t wait until we’re back in the cafeteria, feeling safe and having our meeting,” he said. “But I do like the aspect tonight; we had a lot of people who were able to join us. Some, if we were in-person, may have decided not to because of the health risk.”

Health risks also came up in Capital.

“I have to admit, I totally agree with what Mr. Christiansen said,” said board member Joan Engel. “I honestly believe we should — if the kids have to go, we should have to go — but I have to say, I’m old and I have an autoimmune disorder. I’ll do it, but it’s going to be scary. … I’ll just have a lot of facial garb on.”

The hybrid model, of having board members together but keeping most of the public virtual, is similar to what other school boards have deployed in the time since meetings first went virtual in March. Appoquinimink has met in-person in their Odessa board room, spaced out across the room, with district administrators having the option to join remotely. Their meetings are streamed on YouTube.

Similarly, Lake Forest has created a hybrid board meeting style. The board can meet together, or have members join remotely, and they allow staff and the community to join virtually.

A decision on whether to move fully in-person would likely come on a rolling basis, said school board president Earle Dempsey.

“It’s a nice alternative to have right now we intend to continue that until we’re given appropriate guidance that either we don’t have to or, frankly, are not allowed to,” he said. “We’re just trying to do what’s prudent and best for everyone and certainly erring on the side of caution.”

The board is among many that will hear from its district about their localized reopening plans, following the official word from the governor.

“I believe that what we do, from a board meeting perspective, should mirror what we do from a kids-back-to-school perspective,” he added.

At their board meeting in July, Smyrna kicked off the board meeting by welcoming those tuning in to the “hopefully last virtual school board meeting,” said board member Christine Malec. The board voted to approve its meeting calendar at a series of in-person locations.

With all of the nuances that the virtual meetings bring — internet connectivity issues, muted microphones — Milford board member Rony Baltazar-Lopez did note that it has allowed increased participation.

“I just also believe in the future we should explore — hopefully once COVID-19 is over — … live-streaming this, because it has provided an opportunity for families who can’t come out necessarily in-person to meet at our board meetings,” he said. “Having 98 people tonight is a signal that it is working to do the remote, online web chat. So that would just be something that, in the long term, we should look into.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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