The COVID-19 outbreak has forced schools and government agencies to get creative with technology to keep their processes moving.

One crucial function that cannot get lost in the coronavirus shuffle is the public’s access to information concerning decisions made and dollars spent by individuals there to represent them.

As our John Finnerty reported Monday from Harrisburg, schools across Pennsylvania will remain closed until at least April 6.

And while teachers and administrators are scrambling to make sure they stay connected with students during the virus shutdown, school boards are finding ways to keep doing their districts’ business while maintaining safety standards.

Township, borough and county officials – yes, even the state House and Senate – are faced with the same challenge of practicing safety in the face of a contagious virus while continuing to keep the organizational wheels churning.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is supporting its members with the technology to hold public meetings online in order to practice social distancing.

“The licenses we’ve secured are the expanded version that will allow the school boards to not only hold their meetings virtually, but also live-stream the meetings on public channels such as Facebook, giving the public access to meetings and allowing community members to submit questions and comments to the school board,” PSBA spokeswoman Annette Stevenson said.

As Finnerty reported, state law requires that school boards meet at least once every two months.

The PSBA believes a state law allows for a quorum – a minimum voting contingent – even in the case of distance meetings through video or teleconferencing.

Likewise, the state Office of Open Records sees no language in the law that allows for the suspension of public access during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erik Arneson, director of the OOR, said the organization’s position is that “agencies are required to provide notice of any changes to their normal meeting routine,” and that “meeting minutes absolutely must be taken and must be made available to the public.”

We agree.

In this age of live video and interactive digital technology, there’s no reason a remote meeting can’t also be a public meeting.

We urge school, municipal and county boards to maintain communication about their actions – as the Sunshine Law requires – and to provide information that allows constituents to call in or join a video gathering, as well as where meeting minutes can be read. 

The school boards association offers these guidelines for virtual public meetings:

• Make the meeting available online, and provide a physical location where members of the public who don’t have internet access could observe and participate – maintaining safety measures, of course.

• Ensure that a system is set up for members of the public to provide comment and feedback during the sessions.

• Include the news media in planning and advertising for any virtual meeting to ensure that the highest number of constituents is reached in advance.

Transparency is vital when doing the public’s business – including during challenging times.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced schools and government agencies to get creative with technology to keep their processes moving.

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