For many New York parents, the shift during the pandemic to virtual school board meetings meant they could attend without having to rush to childcare or find transportation.
Now, participating in these meetings could become difficult again, and this could have significant consequences in terms of the voices that will be heard when the city makes political decisions.
After repeatedly extending New York’s COVID state of emergency, Governor Kathy Hochul allowed it to expire earlier this month, ending virtual town hall meetings governed by the Open Meetings Act. The city, however, extended its local state of emergency until Oct. 22, giving councils a bit more time to figure out next steps.
Meetings covered by the state’s open meeting law can become hybrid, but it could get messy.
A council can pass a resolution or change its bylaws allowing individual members to attend virtually due to illness, disability, care responsibilities or any other “significant or unexpected factor or event”. But the quorum of council members must always be present in person.
Several public agencies governed by the state’s Open Meetings Act have passed resolutions to hold hybrid meetings, though many have not, and some parent advocates worry many families may not show up. With unvaccinated parents still barred from schools, in-person meetings could mean they can no longer attend. Hybrid meetings, on the other hand, may require technical equipment and expertise that some of these voluntary organizations might not have. And for many school board members — most of whom are custodians — who will be able to log in and who will have to show up?
“You could cook dinner for your child and be in a meeting at the same time,” said Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a member of the city’s Education Policy Panel, or PEP, of online meetings.
The rule applies to the PEP, a largely mayor-appointed board that only approves (or rejects) contracts, and also provides one of the few spaces for families and advocates to publicly express their perspective on issues ranging from school closures to disciplinary changes. The panel, which is required to livestream their meetings, has not yet voted on whether to allow hybrid members to participate or whether they will accept public comments via teleconference. (PEP meetings lasted well past midnight, both virtually and in person.)
The Open Meetings Act also affects charter school boards, school leadership teams (a joint educator-parent committee at each school that makes instructional and other decisions), and the 36 parent-led community education councils, which are largely advisory but also have the power to shape the boundaries of school zones.
These education councils, known as CECs, add “a layer of democracy” and “as members use their platform, it’s an extra set of eyes representing the views of parents,” a former member told Chalkbeat. They have also become the forum for heated debates over changing admissions policies in an effort to integrate one of the most segregated school systems in the country, with a recent electoral push on both sides of the aisle for their preferred candidates sit on the boards.
So far, nine of 36 parent councils have sent resolutions to the Department of Education approving hybrid meetings, according to school officials.
The open meeting rule does not apply to parent-teacher association meetings. These bodies can choose to hold in-person, virtual or hybrid meetings, in accordance with regulations passed by the PEP in November. (And while many board meetings are resuming in-person, parent-teacher conferences at schools will be remote this year.)
Many online CEC meetings have not only been helpful for parents, Salas-Ramirez said, but educators have also found it easier to attend the meetings, allowing for more collaboration between parents and teachers, Salas-Ramirez said. , former chairman of the Board of Education in East Harlem. District 4. Since their meetings went live, between 60 and 250 people have attended, she estimated.
“In person, I’m not kidding, it’s five people,” she said. “Before, half of the parents didn’t even know what a CEC does. They didn’t know what a PEP does.
“A Big Business”
The Citywide Council on Special Education, the advisory group representing families who have children with disabilities, voted to hold hybrid meetings in hopes it will allow their community to have continued access to its meetings, the city said. member Paullette Healy.
“Our families face a myriad of challenges from having children with disabilities and/or being disabled themselves,” she said. “Because we’re citywide, we have an added challenge of traveling to all five boroughs…It’s always been a huge challenge with acquiring enough members to make quorum, and we haven’t reaches a lot of our community by doing it this way.”
The board plans to hold its first hybrid meeting of the year on Sept. 29 at the Department of Education headquarters in Lower Manhattan, but Healy fears the group will run into technical difficulties.
They’ve had problems trying to stream from the 19th century building before and without “proper technology” the problems can persist. Healy is concerned that other parent councils will face similar challenges given the lack of support from the Education Department in terms of providing the technology or equipment needed for hybrid meetings, she said. declared.
“A lot of us use our own personal gear or have to use our tiny budget to buy,” Healy said. “We have discussed this with the DOE several times to no avail.”
Many schools still lack reliable Wi-Fi, and CECs – usually their administrative assistants – have to bring a host of equipment, including laptops, microphones, hotspots and headphones, at the school hosting the meeting and at their district office.
“It’s a big business,” Healy said.
Education department officials said they generally provide technical assistance to CECs for their town halls with the Chancellor and explore future technical assistance based on needs and resources.
In Bedford Stuyvesant District 16, Community Education Council President NeQuan McLean would like his members to offer hybrid meetings — he’s even pushed Albany for the option — but right now they don’t have the option. feeling of having the ability to do so.
“This situation got us in a tough spot,” McLean said.
His CEC is among several who are short of an administrative assistant – “because the salaries are so low”, he said – which means that all the work to organize meetings and create various documents within the required deadlines falls on him and other parent volunteers.
Loss of flexibility
Holding in-person meetings is easier than offering hybrid meetings, McLean said. You can simply distribute documents without making a slideshow. You don’t have to monitor comments online, or choose which of the six out of 11 members should show up in person. Also, when meetings are online, they tend to last longer, which could be a problem for in-person members who might need to get home late at night.
Still, McLean worries that being in-person only will hinder participation, and he still hopes to go hybrid at some point. His CEC has also seen more than 100 people in remote meetings, compared to about 25 for past in-person meetings.
But the cost to do it well exceeds their meager budget.
“The right way to do it: you need a camera that shows the dais, you have microphones for people to talk to and then feed it,” McLean said. “We need at least $25,000 to buy the proper equipment.”
For charter schools, which hold regular board meetings, the New York Charter Schools Association has been spreading the word to ensure schools are aware of the new requirements and ready to implement them. said its executive director Yomika Bennett.
Pandemic emergency meeting rules allowing for greater flexibility have resulted in much greater public engagement and participation, Bennett echoed.
“We are disappointed with the loss of this flexibility in the law and the layers of new rules advice must navigate,” she wrote in an email. “That said, we are grateful that the law preserves a videoconferencing option. We will see what the final impact of the changes is and seek to modify the law if necessary. »
Amy Zimmer is Chalkbeat New York’s bureau chief. Contact Amy at [email protected]