When the school board, borough council and other local government meetings were first held virtually due to the coronavirus, I was so excited. You mean I can attend the meeting from my couch, in comfy clothes, with my cat? Amazing.
But now, almost six months in, I’m over it.
I haven’t had great experiences while attending these virtual meetings. Board members forget to turn their mics on. Others never turn theirs off. The connection is poor. The call drops. It’s incredibly hard to hear anyone, let alone make out what they’re actually saying.
These local government bodies are making important decisions. Will the school allow extracurriculars and athletics? When will the school open? How has the pandemic impacted the borough’s finances, and in turn, how will that impact next year’s budget and taxes?
Imagine you’re a parent and you log onto Zoom to listen to your local school board make decisions about your child’s education… and you can’t hear a thing they’re saying.
I know that it is likely not done intentionally. And I understand the importance of social distancing and holding things online if you have the capability. But then you have to make sure you truly have that capability.
I only cover some of the districts and boroughs here, so I can only speak on those experiences. I’ve been covering the Coudersport Area School District and Southern Tioga School District. In my experience, these virtual meetings have been a mess, though I think they have good intentions. I’ve talked with the STSD superintendent and know he has at least listened to my recommendations and worked to make adjustments during the meetings. I have given the same recommendations to the Coudersport superintendent, but have not gotten a response and have not seen any changes.
The point of writing this isn’t to complain or to drag down these schools and its boards/administrations. They’re all doing work and making decisions I would never want to have to do. The point is to call for change and more transparency.
Board members, administrators and anyone else speaking during these public meetings need to state their name prior to making any comments and motions. I have covered enough of both of these meetings to know most of the board members’ voices. But if someone were to attend a meeting for the first time virtually, they would have no idea who is speaking.
When using Zoom, it’s important everyone turns their individual video on. With that, their microphones need to be on when they’re talking. With both on, it is easier to tell who is speaking. But, they should still state their name, because it can still be hard to tell who is speaking, especially when they’re wearing a mask.
They need to speak loudly and slowly, and really make sure they’re cognizant that people are listening via phone/Zoom.
Microphones should also be turned off when they’re done speaking, to avoid feedback and other obnoxious noises.
This is all even more important for the Coudersport school board, as those members meet in person and then have the public listen via phone conference. There is no video. The public can’t see who is talking. There appears to only be one microphone at the front of the room, but board members are spread out in the room, so it’s hard to hear anyone and to know who is speaking.
This is a similar setup the Potter County Commissioners have been using, though the public can physically attend if they want. The quality of these phone meetings have been OK; there are typically only three people talking so it is a little easier to decipher who is speaking. Still, more could be done on that end.
It’s important now more than ever that the local government bodies take the time to ensure its technology is working properly — prior to the beginning of the meeting — and make sure it is overly accessible to the public. Anything less is unacceptable.