QUESTION: Why can’t parents of Alamance-Burlington students attend school board meetings in person? Why can we not ask question of the board face-to-face and force an answer [versus school board members] picking and choosing what they want to answer?
ANSWER: ABSS reopened the school board’s meeting room (the auditorium on the second floor at central office in Burlington) to the general public earlier this month. And starting with the school board’s meeting Monday night, individuals who wanted to ask questions or make comments to school board members were required to attend in person and to speak during the part of the meeting that is designated for “public comments.”
Statewide restrictions on indoor gatherings have been eased – from the previous limit of 25 people to the current limit of 50 people at indoor gatherings – under an executive order that Gov. Roy Cooper issued last month, which is scheduled to expire at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow. Existing requirements to wear face masks in public buildings and to observe six-foot social distancing guidelines are expected to remain in place at least until June 1, Cooper said last week.
For now, ABSS is limiting attendance at school board meetings to a maximum of 35 people (about half of the auditorium’s usual capacity) in order to meet state guidelines for social distancing.
“The maximum capacity posted is based on the seating configuration in the auditorium audience seating area,” ABSS public information officer Jenny Faulkner told The Alamance News this week. “ABSS maintenance [staff] marked off which seats are able to be used by guests and still maintain [six-foot] physical distancing and the maximum of 50 in-person state guidance for indoors events. The 35-guest maximum does not include the board members who are seated up front, the board attorney, or staff required to operate video/sound/computer equipment. Other ABSS staff will rotate in/out as needed if maximum audience capacity is reached.”
Prior to entering the school board’s meeting room, visitors will now be required to go through a COVID-19 symptom screening process – currently a prerequisite for entry into public buildings in Alamance County and elsewhere in the state – and will be required to wear face coverings, in keeping with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines for K-12 public schools.
ABSS had closed the auditorium at the central office where school board members hold their semi-monthly meetings in conjunction with the statewide school closure that Cooper ordered in March 2020. ABSS parents and other individuals had been directed to submit their questions or comments for the school board via email by 12:00 p.m. noon on the day of the school board’s “night meeting.” Those comments and questions have been read aloud into the public record – and recorded in the meeting minutes – during each monthly night meeting since last spring.
Despite ABSS having lifted restrictions on public attendance at school board meetings, there is no means by which to “force an answer” (as the newspaper’s questioner phrased it) about comments or questions posed to school board members during the public comments portion of their meetings.
An ABSS policy permits school board members to ask clarifying questions during public comments but prohibits them from engaging in a general discussion about the topic at hand unless the board’s meeting agenda is amended, based on the policy, which mirrors the state’s public education laws.
School board members also do not accept public comments during their work sessions, based on a separate ABSS policy that outlines how each meeting is to be conducted. Work sessions are held during the afternoon on the second Tuesday of each month in order to set the agenda for the night meeting, which is typically held the fourth Monday of each month.
Meanwhile, Cooper has signaled that all COVID-19 capacity and social distancing restrictions could be lifted by June 1, based on declining numbers of positive cases, along with the number of adults in the state who have received at least one dose of several COVID-19 vaccines that are available.
However, the governor said at a press conference last Wednesday that the statewide mask mandate (i.e., the requirement for wearing face coverings inside any public buildings) is likely to remain in effect beyond June 1.
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