Regulations and Public Policies Governing Access
While regulations vary from state to state, “sunshine laws” generally require school districts to make reasonable efforts to ensure the public has live access to virtual meetings and event recordings. For example, California’s Brown Act requires local governments to post agendas 72 hours prior to meetings.
“Transparency is more essential now than it has been in a very long time,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told Chalkbeat.
At the start of the pandemic, Snyder published “Sunshine Week: Transparency Critical During Public Health Emergency,” a document that provides free resources from the First Amendment Coalition. It includes access to a legal hotline, a freedom of information boot camp and sample public records request letters. “During times of widespread uncertainty, the public needs a clear picture of what our government is doing,” Snyder wrote.
As the pandemic took hold in 2020, new regulations were drawn up to help school districts adjust to stay-at-home orders and provide continual support for their communities. In Tennessee, for example, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order in March requiring that “each governing body must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the public access to the meeting via electronic means is live access.” If livestreaming isn’t possible, schools must provide audio or video recordings of the meeting within two business days.
As the effects of COVID-19 spill over into 2021, expect similar policies to appear in districts across the country.
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Tools for a Successful Virtual Board Meeting
Like most remote meetings taking place today, virtual school board sessions use videoconferencing platforms, recording devices, teleconferencing software and other technology resources to enhance the experience for all participants. These tools help schools comply with open records laws while conducting business online, even without the benefits of traditional in-person meetings.
For example, a typical school board meeting includes opportunities for questions or commentary from the audience. In place of this, Colorado School District 49 gave participants the option to submit questions ahead of time via a chat feature. The district streams its school board meetings on Facebook Live, Google Hangouts and Zoom.
Virtual school board meetings also need high-quality audio and video for viewers. Here are some of the tools districts have deployed:
- Collaboration platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex allow school boards to hold virtual meetings that are accessible on a wide range of devices, including mobile phones.
- To ensure pristine video and audio quality, many districts opt for a high-quality camera system like the Logitech Brio 4K Pro Webcam, which offers convenient autofocus features and lighting adjustments, and supports multiple HD resolutions to adapt to any network environment, including 4K, 1080p and 720p. The Lenovo 500 FHD Webcam is another popular choice for videoconferencing because of its ease of use and ability to transfer HD video data.
- An audio mixer or audio interface connects the microphone channels, adjusts the sound attributes and provides analog connectivity to the videoconferencing system. Products include the ANIUSB-MATRIX USB audio network interface, the Shure MOTIV MVi digital audio interface, or the JBL CSMA 180 Series mixer-amplifier.
- Microphones will ensure optimal audio quality throughout the broadcast. There are several good options, including the VEC CM-1000 conference microphone, the Yeti Nano from Blue Microphones, or the Philips SpeechMike Premium USB dictation microphone.
- If the district chooses to livestream its virtual board meetings, an encoder is an essential piece of equipment that reduces buffering and ensures the video is compatible with specific devices, software or services. There are three types: hardware encoders, software encoders and Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) encoders.
“The more we can make families feel secure and reassured about their students’ education, and how important and valuable their children are, the better they feel about things,” John Graham, District 49 school board president, told Chalkbeat. With the right tools and resources, schools can navigate their new virtual environments while upholding transparency — perhaps well enough that remote school board meetings may remain a post-pandemic option for districts.
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