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As remote meetings fade away, schools debate public access and participation 

Monitor staff
Published: 9/14/2021 4:42:33 PM

Throughout 2020 and early 2021, Gov. Sununu’s COVID-era emergency orders allowed for remote attendance at school board meetings, a measure that provided greater accessibility for families at home than ever before. Since the state of emergency ended in June, school boards have returned to board rooms, cafeterias and gymnasiums. Some are continuing to offer livestreams, while others are debating the feasibility of online participation.

Last month, Henniker and John Stark school boards began livestreaming and archiving their monthly in-person board meetings on the school district’s YouTube Channel, something they did not do before the pandemic. Zach Lawson, chair of the John Stark School Board and vice chair of the Henniker School Board, said the reason is to continue the high level of access that was available to families during the pandemic year.

“We wanted the most people to have access to attend these meetings, no matter where they are,” Lawson said. “We know we have people watching these meetings from their desks if they are working late or from their living rooms or their kitchens at home.”

Lawson, who has been advocating for online access to meetings since he became a board member, said his school boards experienced the highest level of public participation they ever had when meetings were broadcast remotely, with some sessions drawing 150 to 180 online attendees.

Merrimack Valley School Board, which currently streams its meetings live on YouTube but doesn’t record or save them, is now taking steps to find a way to record and archive meetings for later viewing.

Concord School Board, whose meetings have been livestreamed and archived by Concord TV since before the pandemic, voted 6-2 last week to discontinue offering remote public comment via phone or Zoom as they did during the state of emergency, citing liability with New Hampshire’s Right to Know law, RSA 91-A.

The law allows board members to appear remotely but doesn’t specify rules for audience members, meaning a board isn’t prohibited from hearing remote public comments, but it’s also not a right that’s expressly granted.

According to Concord School Board member Gina Cannon, chair of the board’s Communications and Policy Committee, the district’s legal counsel advised against offering virtual participation because the 91-A law requires a level of full access that the school board may not be able to guarantee online. Cannon said in the meeting on Sept. 7 that the inevitable technical issues that can happen in an online meeting could leave attendees unable to either see or hear board members, unintentionally violating the access the law affords.

“Access does not always go smoothly,” Cannon said. “...Would we have to stop the meeting until everybody who was there remotely would be able to have access? We are advised by our council that in fact yes we would. We would not be able to continue our meeting unless everybody would be able to see, hear and respond at that meeting.”

School board members Pamela Walsh and Kate West argued the point, saying in-person meetings already have accessibility issues for many people, including families of young children, disabled people and non-English speakers.

“I understand the concerns the legal counsel raised, some of them I feel like exist even more so with our current system of allowing public comment, including ADA access,” said Walsh. “We don’t provide childcare for people to come to board meetings and that’s a huge barrier for families to come and participate.”

Henniker and John Stark are also no longer allowing members of the public to comment remotely, meaning people must attend the in-person meeting if they would like to speak.

Concord School Board members recognized the same high community participation during remote meetings that Lawson observed, but also noted that there were many topics discussed during that time period that garnered widespread public interest, including COVID safety protocols, racial justice and the school resource officer position.

“I thought it was great to have a lot of people involved, but ... as a board member I can’t in good conscience expose our district to the financial potential liability of providing everyone with equal, continuous, simultaneous access,” Cannon said. “And that’s something we just don’t have the technology to do.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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