From initial access link-up issues, followed by trying to track a flowing stream of public comments while also hearing some abrasive exchanges by board members, the Board of Education’s virtual meetings due to COVID-19 have posed challenges.
Board President Stephen P. Hampe, referring to the topic as “life in Zoom land,” on Friday noted the various factors involved for the Zoom meeting platform that is being used after virtual meetings beginning in March had unsuccessfully used a Google platform.
Hampe was asked about the meetings following a board session last week in which adoption of a proposed 2020-21 school district budget was preceded by some members lashing out at one another through remote video feeds, including fiery comments. A person who had tuned in spoke to the board during the meeting about the session’s lack of decorum. Hampe replied during the meeting it was unfortunate that tempers flared and that some members spoke harshly.
When asked to what extent board members might tend to speak more aggressively when commenting in a distance format rather than in-person, Hampe said “is it likely that people behave differently online versus in-person?....Long story short, yes it is.”
Hampe said he did his doctoral dissertation research on the subject in the early 2000s when “Facebook et al were just getting going so that social venue didn’t really exist yet.” But since then, “’hiding behind the keyboard’ has been shown to be a real phenomenon,” he noted, while pointing out “the inclusion of video, however, is supposed to be a mediating factor.”
Hampe additionally observed “the reality is that one never knows what can potentially happen at a public meeting.” He further said “trying to gavel members into order had previously resulted in accusations of ‘censorship.’ Ultimately, the chair has little choice but rely on participants to maintain decorum.”
As for public comments or questions during virtual meetings, they are being submitted online through a chat-style format in which entries are typed in, with some participants presenting multiple questions at different points during the Q&A portion; board members and district Superintendent Peter C. Blake have responded to questions/comments as they appear, sometimes addressing groups of questions involving one particular topic. Some participants have used their actual names, and others have not. By comparison, in-person board meetings have included people identifying themselves and offering questions/comments that receive responses one at a time.
“It is a significant challenge in a free-form chat room to monitor all the traffic there and still facilitate the meeting,” said Hampe, noting it is why he and Blake are often seen on the video feed “looking back-and-forth between our phones, laptops, and the viewscreen in the board room.”
In checking with other school board presidents through a statewide board association, Hampe found most have “simply moved their live meeting policy to digital form, essentially that public commenters must register and now submit their question in advance, usually a few hours before the meeting start time.”
For the Rome board’s meetings, however, “increasing public participation...has been a priority of mine since joining the board,” said Hampe, pointing out prior adjustments for when public comments occur in meetings plus recently adding an “AsktheBOE” email address.
But the ability for people to submit anonymous comments at virtual meetings was “inappropriate” and stemmed from a Zoom feature that was not activated, Hampe explained. Anonymous comments “will not be allowed in future meetings,” he added. He hopes to establish a “hybrid plan” that asks for questions/comments in advance through the email address while also allowing some “limited real-time Q&A” such as perhaps after specific meeting presentations.
In contrast to “the Zoom format that is working pretty well right now” overall, Hampe noted the board’s initial virtual meeting attempts using a different platform were frustrating. They “started with Google Meet which had been used quite successfully for various meetings of district staff and community members,” but “we were tripped up by an unknown lock on people from outside the district unless they received a direct invitation.”
After moving to Zoom, said Hampe, “even there were hiccups” including a YouTube livestream that at first did not work but was later resolved.
Another virtual hearing on the proposed 2020-21 budget will be Monday evening. The board also meets on June 10.