One convenience of the pandemic has been meetings taking place via Zoom and other internet-based video conferencing platforms. Such has been the case with Calais School Board meetings, allowing for more people to watch without attending in person.
According to school board chair Joe Footer last Wednesday, Feb. 24, prior to that evening’s school board meeting, Calais School Board meetings will no longer be accessible virtually after that evening.
“We provided Zoom meetings as an option beginning last April,” Footer said. “It was not mandated via any Department of Education policy or a governor-signed Executive Order...we did it then for safety and not convenience.”
As for the board’s decision to discontinue broadcasting the meetings over Zoom, Footer said the reasoning is “quite simple.” and “We are getting back to normal...slowly but surely,” and part of getting back to normal, he said, is returning to in-person meetings.
Footer also expressed his concerns over viewers missing pertinent information when not attending meetings in person. “Far too much information is returned to us because of disinformation coming from the ones who access Zoom meetings,” he said, adding, “People don’t hear certain things, interpret things a certain way, step out of their living room to go to the bathroom and miss things said.”
Footer admits he does not like the Zoom platform. “[The Calais School Board is] not discontinuing Zoom because I don’t like it. I am for discontinuing it because it provides an inconsistent product, and in-person meetings, you can see all and hear all.”
The board, according to Footer, does not need to list discontinuing the Zoom option on the agenda. “It wasn’t [an agenda item] in the spring last year to add it; it doesn’t [need to be an agenda item] this spring to end it,” he said, adding that the decision was done in coordination with Superintendent of Schools Ron Jenkins.
With school having recently resumed to in-person, full-time status for students in pre-k and grades 1 and 2, Footer hopes grades 3 through 6 will be returning in the near future. “We are moving forward, as you can see. If we can all go to school, shouldn’t we all be expected to go to meetings? The majority of the board thinks so.”
Advocates of virtual meetings say the platform is easy to use and manage for anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Likewise, for those without transportation, or a desire to simply stay home, being present at the local public meeting can still occur when viewing is offered online. Other benefits of virtual meetings include no risk of overcrowding, no worrying about parking, and no need for child care, many say.
Responding to those taxpayers who feel the board’s decision to discontinue meetings via Zoom is a way to limit public participation, Footer said he has not been made aware of such a complaint.
“We have meetings, with anyone encouraged to attend if they want and they can even speak at meetings. This has always been the case. I mean, a taxpayer could make that argument three years from now if we decided in three years to continue Zoom meetings, ‘You are limiting us.’ Do taxpayers go to city hall if the dump is closed for some unknown reason on a Wednesday? I doubt it. They go [to the dump] on Saturday. We are Americans. We evolve, we bend but don’t break, and make do and move on and make it work,” he said.
“We will never please everyone, but from what I have been told, the majority of the taxpayers think we do a good job. If a select handful think otherwise, like I said, we can’t please everyone,” Footer said.
“Bottom line is this: we will always have our in-person meetings. We started Zoom for safety and if it is safe to open schools, and do what we all do on a regular basis and leave our homes, we can expect people to come to meetings. We all need to stop making everything an issue and focus on the important issues like opening up all our schools to all our grades, manage a budget for adoption this spring in a time where revenue is a challenge to do so, and continue educating our youth...the list goes on.”