Brixton While planning to return for face-to-face meetings, South San Francisco school officials agreed that the district should continue to broadcast meetings online in hopes of maintaining the community’s increased engagement during the pandemic.
The Board of Trustees of the South San Francisco Unified School District unanimously agreed to keep broadcasts of online meetings on Thursday, May 27th, as they prepare to do so, Thursday, June 24th, for the first time in more than one Year to begin face-to-face meetings.
But while the Trustees shared the belief that online broadcasts should continue even after members of the school community were invited back to meetings, questions remained as to whether remote public comments would be allowed.
Trustee John Baker advocated remote attendance, claiming that this lowers the barrier to entry for those interested in giving their opinion on matters to the board but not having the flexibility to attend meetings.
“It has produced a lot more democracy, it has produced a lot more participation from members of the community,” he said.
However, he measured this perspective by noting that although he preferred to keep public comments from a distance, the more critical issue was the board continuing to broadcast meetings online for community members to watch from home can.
Trustee Pat Murray claimed otherwise, suggesting that public comment should only be allowed when a person is attending a meeting – as soon as public health conditions permit.
Claiming that context is lost when a person comments remotely, Murray said she believed it was preferable for a person to speak to the board so that officials could better grasp their position.
“I think it’s really important that we have these nuances when trying to understand our community,” she said. “That they are there and talk to us.”
Board chairwoman Daina Lujan said she felt the same, but for different reasons.
After months of conducting online meetings, Lujan found that it can be difficult to moderate meetings, especially those with large groups of people who want to talk about key issues.
Personally, she said that time management for meetings is easier as the moderator is better able to read the room and to the best of his ability to ensure that the meetings are not late at night.
But online, Lujan said, it is harder to tell how many people will be interested in speaking, and this reduces their ability to conduct meetings efficiently.
She also added that she felt that personal comments had a greater resonance than virtual ones.
“It’s something to be said that you are actually able to make eye contact and hear sound,” she said.
The problem is one that school districts and local governments are grappling with as public health conditions improve, gatherings are allowed again, and meetings in boardrooms and town halls forced online by the pandemic resume.
Proponents of online meetings and public commentary generally advocate relying on technology to expand access, and point to an increase in participation over the past year from community members who take advantage of the flexibility of remote agreements.
However, critics often note that the increase in participation has lengthened the length of meetings, leading to many meetings lasting late into the night and raising concerns about the wisdom of sometimes making political decisions after midnight.
Currently, those wishing to attend meetings of the South San Francisco School Committee are encouraged to email their comments to the board in advance of the meeting or attend live via a remote public comment. Looking ahead, officials expressed an interest in continuing to accept the statements sent via email, but remote public comments could be eliminated once members of the community can again attend meetings.
No final decision has been made on this issue and further decisions will be made at a later meeting. But Baker said if officials attempt to ban public commenting remotely, they should consider broadcasting the sessions on YouTube and moving away from Zoom to save on administrative costs.
With a view to the meeting on June 24th, the board members can hold personal meetings in the district office and finally return to the boardroom of the Baden High School as soon as the parishioners can attend.
Lujan noted, however, that the board’s decision could ultimately be overshadowed by any orders from Governor Gavin Newsom, who is expected to provide clearer guidance on such issues once the state moves away from its tiered color system in a few weeks’ time.
On similar matters, the board agreed to read a statement at the beginning of each board meeting that the meeting was taking place on land originally inhabited by indigenous peoples.
Baker suggested the recognition to signal the board’s commitment to social justice.
“It’s a way to formally acknowledge and reflect on what was essentially an extermination of the indigenous people and the trauma they suffered under colonialism,” he said.
Baker said he had noticed similar recognition is being made at other public gatherings across the state, and he felt that adoption in South San Francisco would be in line with a variety of similar initiatives by his school board.
To that end, the board is considering changing the name of Junipero Serra Elementary School based on the missionary’s treatment of Native Americans, and recently changed the South San Francisco High School mascot to abandon the Native American imagery.
The rest of his colleagues supported the proposal, and Superintendent Shawnterra Moore said officials will return using the proposed language at the next board meeting so that the board can review the official adoption.
Baker said the recognition was the least the board could do to honor the history of the region.
“It’s better than what we’re doing now,” he said.