On an evening last September, the cafeteria of D. Ferd Swaney Elementary School in York Run was brimming with a public audience for a meeting of the Albert Gallatin school board.
In that cafeteria Wednesday, nearly six months to the day later and amidst a viral pandemic, the board took their seats before an empty room. The public, however, still looked on.
Hamstrung by federal mass gathering restrictions during a two-week state-mandated closure caused by COVID-19, the Albert Gallatin Area School District plodded on with its monthly business meeting, which was limited to board members and essential personnel while livestreamed on Facebook Live for the viewing of parents, students and taxpayers and community members.
“We felt in order to still be able to keep our business end of things operational that this area is large enough to where we can spread everybody out to accommodate a certain number of individuals that wanted to attend the meeting, and we felt it would be important for the public to be able to participate through livestreaming so they can hear what’s happening,” said Chris Pegg, district superintendent.
Since a directive from Gov. Tom Wolf on March 13 for all public schools across the state to close for 10 business days, and at a time when federal agencies have told citizens to stay indoors and limit mass gathering to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, school districts have taken caution in holding public meetings.
Several school districts in the area have canceled or rescheduled upcoming meetings.
Albert Gallatin, which typically holds its voting meeting on the third Wednesday of each month and its work session on the preceding Monday, opted to combine its two dates, initially with a 50-person attendance limit before federal guidelines further restricted mass gatherings to no more than 10 people.
That’s when livestreaming the meeting became a realistic alternative.
“We were trying to follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Department of Health and President Trump’s guidelines on gatherings,” said Pegg. “We kept that (number) down and still had people be able to participate and be part of the meeting through livestreaming.”
In accordance with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, Albert Gallatin gave members of the public the opportunity to “speak” during the public forum portion of the meeting by commenting on the livestream and having their question or comment read by the stream’s moderator. There were no takers, however.
The two videos livestreamed from the meeting — one from the work session and one from the voting meeting — were each viewed more than 1,000 times Wednesday night.
Pegg said there has been discussion among administrators within the Intermediate Unit 1 service area this week regarding concerns over gatherings and alternatives to traditional board meetings.
“There have been a lot of questions from superintendents and boards that (the IU1) were fielding about this concern about conducting normal business,” he said.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) has issued guidance on conducting board meetings through electronic communications, such as teleconference or video conference.
While many boards have a policy to allow board members to participate remotely, the policy typically contains a provision limiting the number of members permitted to do so at one time. However, the PSBA has clarified that the policy is a recommendation only, and there is no statute prohibiting a majority of board members from meeting through electronic communications.
“We didn’t get to that point, but that may come in the future,” said Pegg.