Ever since the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District’s governing board meetings went online due to the pandemic, attendance has skyrocketed. So has participation. But board members acknowledge that meetings are still missing Latino and parent community members. Now, the state is giving elected officials the power to decide whether to meet in person or online, and the future of meetings is in the hands of officials like those on the South Coast school board.
Most local boards, including the Pacifica and Half Moon Bay city councils, voted this month to continue meeting online. Last week, Pacifica City Council voted unanimously to stay online and decided to wait until its January meeting to have a full discussion about moving to in-person meetings.
The council has the authority to decide due to Assembly Bill 361, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 16. The new bill allows legislative bodies to conduct meetings by teleconference if the board agrees that meeting in person would create a risk to the attendees. Local boards have to re-approve a motion to stay online each month.
City Manager Kevin Woodhouse said Pacifica City Council is looking to pilot a hybrid model that provides call-in options to the live meetings. But that program would introduce costs, so either Pacific Coast Television or the city would have to spend money on new equipment. PCT provided a proposal for a phone-in connection system providing options with costs running between $950 and $3,550, said City Clerk Sarah Coffey.
The Half Moon Bay City Council and Midcoast Community Council each also voted last week to stay remote. Earlier this year, before the mask mandate was reintroduced, the city of Half Moon Bay conducted one in-person public safety subcommittee meeting to test out in-person meetings, City Clerk Jessica Blair said. But part of many boards’ hesitation with moving to in-person meetings has to do with the continued mask mandate in the county that went back into effect on Aug. 3.
“I think it would be difficult to do it wearing a mask,” Pacifica Councilmember Sue Vaterlaus said.
One other aspect of AB 361 is that local boards get to dictate the requirements of the meetings, including whether attendees must be vaccinated, a concern raised by Pacifica Councilmember Tygarjas Twyrls Bigstyck.
Pacifica Councilmember Mike O’Neill said he is worried about flu season beginning soon and wants to wait before opening them up again.
The LHPUSD board, too, hopes to use this time to come up with a hybrid solution and to look at other ways to improve participation in meetings, particularly for people who have inconsistent internet access or who can’t access the necessary technology. One option, which Superintendent Amy Wooliever credited to Puente Education Director Lizeth Hernandez, is to provide space at local farms or community centers for residents to participate remotely from their communities. Board Clerk Monica Resendiz said she also wants the board to look into providing information sessions on how to access Zoom and to inform the public of the purpose of the school board and how they can participate.
“I think this is not a COVID problem,” board member
Renee Erridge said. “This is
a district problem that we need to solve, no matter what.”