The coronavirus pandemic is impacting America’s education system, forcing millions of teachers and students to find innovative ways of continuing learning experiences while staying safe.
The same is true of school boards, the elected or appointed panels of citizens who oversee local school districts and charter schools. With social-distancing rules ordered throughout America, school boards—and most other public councils and boards—have had to adjust and find new and creative ways of getting business done.
While some school boards have decided to put meetings “on hold” until the crisis ends, others have moved ahead with their scheduled meetings. After all, budgets, policy decisions, employee negotiations, and leadership directives don’t stop when campuses are closed. In fact, they become more important than ever.
In some states, emergency declarations from the governor allow school boards and other publicly elected boards, like city councils, to meet virtually as long as the meetings remain in compliance with public meeting and transparency laws. In order to meet these laws, school boards need to make sure the meetings are accessible to the public—via video-chat or phone—and that board members follow all the usual rules. These meetings are just as legitimate as those held in-person.
A LIST OF CONSIDERATIONS FOR SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS DURING SCHOOL CLOSURES
If you are a school board or a school board member looking to take full advantage of the democratic process even during “shelter in place,” here is a list of things to consider to get you there:
- Make sure it is accessible, online or through TV access. Many school boards already live-stream their meetings or broadcast them through local public television, allowing the public to participate by calling in or contributing to a “live chat.” Normally, this functions as a great way to reach thousands of people who might not be able to make it to the board chambers in person. But during times of crisis, it may be the only way to conduct business while still including the public.
- Make sure it is secure. If you are a school board and are thinking of using an online meeting service make sure it’s secure. School boards should ensure the general public can’t share screens or otherwise hijack the meeting proceedings. No one wants to see a meeting disrupted by hundreds of participants not hitting the “mute” button.
- Make sure it is archived. Many platforms offer recording capabilities, and can even synchronize playback to the meeting agenda. That means viewers can go directly to the item they’re interested in, rather than watching an entire meeting.
- Make sure it fosters public participation. In most states, the public must be allowed to participate in school board meetings by commenting on matters on the agenda or addressing board members directly about issues that are important to them. Some online platforms and TV broadcasts don’t have mechanisms for this necessary viewer interaction. There are work-arounds, such as phone calls, emails, instant messages, and live chats which allow viewers to participate.
Public input is necessary for school boards and is especially crucial during these uncertain times. School boards need to hear from families, students, and communities about the transition to remote learning to make sure schools are working justly and prioritizing all students. Here are a list of questions school boards should ask to the broader community:
WHAT QUESTIONS ARE SCHOOL BOARDS GRAPPLING WITH DURING SCHOOL CLOSURES?
School closures affect every student differently, especially disabled, ELL, or undocumented students. So it is essential for school boards to think about how to best support the needs of all students during this time. Are students who are relying on school for lunch, still getting food? Does the district still offer child care for students whose parents are essential workers? Can every student access the internet? How can you help those who can’t? What can the school board do to help students whose parents or guardians are out of work? Questions like these need to be at the forefront of discussion to ensure equity in your school district.
HOW CAN WE BE CLEAR ABOUT THE LOGISTICS OF REMOTE LEARNING? ARE CLEAR GUIDELINES AND STANDARDS IN PLACE?
The transition to remote learning allows students to get lost in the shuffle. Without clear guidelines and expectations from students and educators, remote learning can further student disengagement. To mitigate against this potential detachment, it is imperative for school boards to lay out clear guidelines and practices for students and educators during this time. Are there clear guidelines on grades and attendance? Is your state still planning on administering standardized tests? How will these happen? How can you help students to succeed on these tests?
- What are the long-term effects of the COVID-19 Crisis for schools? COVID-19 will change the way education functions in America. That means that our remote learning successes and failures will shape high school education in the future. More than that, the crisis may impact the district’s budget and long-term plan. Is your school district prepared to deal with this potential change?
- How do we support the mental well-being of students? We all are experiencing a rapid end to normal life and managing our physical safety and mental health in a world that seems chaotic and unpredictable. Adolescents may have a harder time navigating feelings of anxiety and depression, especially as their daily routines are disrupted. How is your school board supporting the wellness of students during school closures? How can it support the mental health of parents and guardians during this time? However, school boards must also recognize that students rely on a network of support—which includes educators, counselors, mentors, and school administrators. Are students still connecting with this network? How can school boards foster better communication and uphold these connections?
Each school district will have its own answers to those questions, and whatever other concerns that families and students may have.
The leadership, vision, and professionalism provided by school board members can make a huge difference for students, families, and teachers during this challenging time. But school boards are important even in good times, and members of the public should always feel encouraged to attend meetings, talk to board members, and even run for office themselves.
For more on schools boards—what they do, how they operate, and why they’re key to reshaping high school education—check out XQ’s “That’s a School Board Thing.” And if you have thoughts about how schools and school boards during COVID-19, send us an email at [email protected]!