By Joseph Hedger
The COVID-19 pandemic posed a challenge to state boards of education as they continued their work while social distancing: open meeting laws. As governors shut down public spaces, many state boards scrambled to conduct meetings virtually that met state guidance and fostered public engagement and input.
Through emergency orders or guidance on how to interpret existing laws, 42 states and the District of Columbia have weighed in as of April 8 on how government bodies are to conduct public meetings. These orders drove many state boards to reevaluate their meeting policies.
The Alabama State Board of Education began their April meeting by voting to temporarily suspend code provisions that conflict with the governor’s emergency declaration, which allows public bodies to hold teleconference or videoconference meetings. To allow them to conduct business virtually, the board waived requirements to vote by raised hand and to establish a quorum by members’ physical presence.
Following his March 4 declaration of a pandemic emergency in Hawaii, Governor David Ige similarly suspended Chapter 92 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, enabling boards to conduct business through remote technology without holding meetings open to the public. In response, the state board approved temporary rules of operation that encompass new meeting protocols while providing public notice and opportunities for participation.
In May, the Utah State Board of Education amended their public meetings rule so the board can conduct virtual meetings. The rule covers protocols for public participation, quorum requirements, and voting. Public comments are now submitted in writing or taken via phone call, and the board streams its meetings on a YouTube channel to maintain security and avoid potential disruptions.
Jeffrey Van Hulten, director of public affairs for the Utah state board, advises other boards to take steps to make virtual public comment periods as open and productive as possible. “Be clear on how and where public input can be given—especially including this information with your meeting agendas as they are posted and over social media channels for your organization,” he said. “It is imperative to make sure you have multiple channels for the public to use because not everyone has the internet or the ability to write their thoughts.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued an advisory with recommendations for members of the public to practice safe videoconferencing, especially following reports of privacy and security issues with the platform Zoom. These recommendations include hosting private meetings, providing meeting links directly to guests, updating software, checking security settings, and offering further information to educators on using Zoom for online lessons.
In all efforts to amend board policies on virtual meeting protocols, “the key is to remember the goal of the open meeting law: The public has a right to know how decisions are made and, whenever possible, to participate in making those decisions,” writes Kristen Amundson in a NASBE boardsmanship review.