Oakland Unified was one of the first school districts statewide to convert to entirely virtual meetings based on the Governor's Executive Order in light of the coronavirus stay at home order. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

While Californians are ordered to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the work of school boards must go on.

To make it possible for boards to carry out their business during the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last month allowing elected local government officials throughout the state — including school boards, city councils and county boards of supervisors — to conduct all meetings virtually. A key requirement: Governing bodies must provide options for the public to view and participate in meetings.

The shift toward virtual meetings, however, comes with challenges, as school districts and other agencies across the state are beginning to learn.

Oakland Unified’s school board was one of the first in the state to convert to virtual meetings, holding one just two days after Newsom signed the order, using Zoom, a video conferencing platform, phones and its regular meeting website. Its first Zoom meeting on March 19 and its secondmeeting March 25 illustrated the opportunities and problems with virtual meetings.

As other districts move to virtual school board meetings, some are watching Oakland Unified to see how it is adapting. West Contra Costa Unified, which canceled three meetings after shelter-in-place orders were announced, conducted its first virtual meeting Wednesday, allowing public comments via Zoom and phone calls.

“We are trying to learn lessons from districts that have done this before, like Oakland Unified,” said West Contra Costa spokesman Marcus Walton, adding that district leaders there are concerned that the new format could limit public access due to lack of computers or internet service. “We’re going to do what we can to work out any kinks in the system so we can expand access to people at future meetings and ensure we’re able to engage the community authentically.”

Across the state, school boards and other agencies are dealing with problems such as so-called “Zoombombing” by online trolls seeking to disrupt meetings with profane or sometimes racist audio or video messages and images. This has occurred in Conejo Valley Unified in Ventura County, as well as in a Lafayette City Council meeting in Contra Costa County. In Oakland Unified, a caller made what one board member called “a racial slur.”

To balance the need to allow the public to participate with a desire to keep out such disruptions, some school boards are only allowing the public to comment via email or voicemail before the meeting starts, while others such as Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified are canceling meetings altogether.

Los Angeles Unified school board President Richard Vladovic canceled the meetings in consultation with Superintendent Austin Beutner, who determined the meetings weren’t necessary, said Jeff Crain, the board secretary.

“The superintendent said we could get away with not having these meetings,” Crain told EdSource.

At the final regular meeting before schools closed, the board granted emergency powers to Beutner, allowing him to enter into contracts without board approval during the coronavirus pandemic. That diminished some of the need for school board meetings, since they often include approving a number of contracts.

If Vladovic changes his mind and determines it’s necessary for the board to meet, he has the power to call a special board meeting at any point. At least one school board member, Nick Melvoin, is supportive of continuing to have meetings.

Melvin told EdSource that if it were up to him, he would have tried to schedule virtual meetings.

“I think it’s more about triaging and prioritizing the needs of the district and also the logistics,” he said. “But given that we have some other institutions like the Los Angeles City Council that were able to do a Zoom meeting, it would be my preference that we try to continue to have a relatively normal meeting schedule.”

Fresno Unified is meeting virtually and allowing the public to submit email comments or voicemail comments that will be transcribed — with all comments posted online and made part of the public record. Long Beach Unified is allowing the public to email comments ahead of time, which will be read aloud during the meeting.

“We decided to go with this way because it’s the most proficient and because of the problems some of the other districts have had,” Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser told EdSource. “You want secure meetings. You don’t want people putting inappropriate things out there. We haven’t had that problem with Zoom in any of our programs, but we want to make sure that we don’t. This more than meets the letter of the law … and still keeps people engaged.”

But David Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition and an expert in the Brown Act open public meeting law, said not allowing the public to comment in real time is “a problem.”

“It’s very important that school boards and others work as hard as they can to provide as broad access as possible and that they work very hard to end the restrictions on physical attendance at meetings at the earliest reasonable point,” he said. “One of the dangers here is the agencies will try to take advantage of the crisis to avoid the hassle of providing public access and take advantage of the governor’s order to avoid the requirements of the Brown Act.”

In Oakland — where community members often show up at board meetings to protest unpopular proposals such as permanent school closures — some residents organized a virtual protest before the meeting last week. They posted videos on social media, including the Oakland Education Association teachers union Facebook page, and urged people to flood the school board with phone calls and emails during an “hour of power,” asking them to vote against a proposal to co-locate a charter school on the Brookfield Elementary campus, and to delay future votes on permanent school closures until after the statewide coronavirus shutdown is over.

One video showed community members — including teachers’ union members, students and parents — speaking about the importance of Brookfield Elementary in the neighborhood, with a message that said: “OUSD: Do not exploit this crisis!”

YouTube video

Some of these community members also made public comments during the meeting, using the “raise your hand” feature on Zoom to participate, or by calling in and waiting for their turns to speak. The public could also submit “e-comments” through the district’s website.

Board members could be seen in their homes or offices in small squares on the screen, but a few used advanced Zoom technology to display virtual backgrounds, including Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who was framed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Board President Jody London, who was surrounded by blossoming trees.

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell participates in the district’s first virtual school board meeting on March 19.

Although many school districts provide translation services at their regular board meetings, virtual meetings are presenting them with both translation challenges and opportunities.

Oakland Unified has sent an urgent request to Zoom asking for translation services, London said. But Steinhauser said Long Beach Unified is offering translation in both Spanish and Khmer via telephone lines, with meetings translated live. Normally, he said translation services are only provided to those who attend meetings. So, the virtual meetings may provide more access to people than they would normally have during regular meetings, where the public must show up to comment or hear the translations, he said.

In Oakland Unified, board member Roseann Torres said people who did not have laptop computers or internet access could not access meetings. But in Long Beach, Steinhauser said the district has provided devices to all students and that anyone who has a phone can access the meetings, although they may need to use data plans if they do not have internet service.

Some agencies have also experienced glitches with the momentary loss of internet connections or slow connections, which can cause board members to disappear momentarily and miss portions of the meeting. And some districts, such as Conejo Unified, realized after their Zoom meeting was hacked, that they needed to take more precautions to prevent malicious disruptions.

“The district has taken immediate action both with law enforcement, and through communication with Zoom to better understand how the disruption occurred, and to prevent it from happening in a virtual meeting again,” Superintendent Mark McLaughlin wrote in a March 25 message. “We thank the community for their continued patience, and understanding as the district’s board of education engages in an unprecedented shift to virtual meetings.”

The California School Boards Association — which represents nearly 1,000 school districts, county offices of education and regional occupational programs throughout the state — has received numerous questions about how to adjust to virtual meetings, said spokesman Troy Flint.

“I think the attempt to conduct meetings virtually while taking questions in some online fashion and making accessibility accommodations to the extent that districts can — given their technical aptitude and infrastructure — is the best way forward in the short term,” he said. “And long term, we have a general interest in increasing the technological infrastructures that schools have for various reasons, primarily for distance learning.”

Snyder, from the First Amendment Coalition, said he is concerned about public access to meetings under the relaxed rules, but he agrees with the need to limit large gatherings due to public health concerns.

“The bottom line for me is whether agencies are doing everything they can to not just provide a way for people to see the meetings,” he said, ” but that they’re providing a way for people to participate in the meetings.”

* Staff writer Michael Burke contributed to this report.

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.