On April 20,the Kent ISD School Board accomplished a first: hosting a virtual meeting.
“Other than me flubbing up on a couple of procedures, it went pretty well,” said board President Andrea Haidle.
The Kent ISD board is not alone in forging into the virtual meeting world. With Gov. Whitmer calling for a state of emergency and issuing executive orders restricting travel and gatherings, all schools in Kent County have had to make adjustments. One of those challenges has been holding mandated public meetings under those restrictions.
According to Michigan’s Opening Meetings Act, any public body — school districts included — is required to hold its meetings open to the public. On March 13, Whitmer issued an executive order stating any public body subject to the Act must continue to meet and may do so virtually, as long as there is public access to the meeting.
These have been uncharted waters for school boards such as Kent ISD’s, which because of the Open Meetings Act must be careful with any virtual conferencing or members calling into a meeting, Haidle said.
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic that put the state of Michigan on lockdown, Haidle said Kent ISD has not had to conduct a virtual meeting. When setting one up, officials must consider factors such as technology, connectivity, and how to prevent people from hijacking the meeting for a personal platform unrelated to the school board, she said.
“We did do a dry run where each individual board member called in to make sure their equipment would connect and work,” she said of the meeting using the Zoom video conferencing app.
Too Many Talkers
Local districts face the same requirements and concerns.
“Rockford Public Schools like many others are feeling their way through alternative ways to communicate and hold our public meetings,” said Timothy Lewis, president of the Rockford Public Schools Board of Education. “We continue to work through many challenges that come with the new on-line/virtual meetings.”
Lewis said Rockford’s administration worked hard to determine the best online meeting portal. The two virtual meetings the district has had have run rather smoothly, he said, but the district continues to look at ways to streamline the process.
As for handling public comment, most districts are requiring participants to register with the superintendent’s office. Instructions on how to register can be found on the individual district’s meeting agenda.
There are challenges in conducting a virtual meeting such as the number of people, Lewis said, adding that “it is hard to control people talking at the same time.”
Haidle said she missed the interaction with staff, receiving input and being able to ask questions.
“We did it, and we know we could do it again if needed, but unless mandated, I would prefer to have an in-person meeting,“ Haidle said, adding the board holds its monthly meeting on the Kent ISD campus in a fairly large room that could accommodate social distancing guidelines. The board’s next meeting is May 18.
“We’ll have to see what we’ll be able to do,” Haidle said.