Is there a plan? Attendance at local school board meetings surges as back-to-school looms

About 100 parents and community members take part in Spring Grove Area School District school board meeting, many voicing their concerns over plans for return to school amid the pandemic. Monday, July 13, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

A special virtual meeting held by Northeastern School District last week to discuss its reopening plan was capped at 250 people, and many residents could not log on to comment.

The district even provided a dial-in phone number, but that connection also reached capacity.

“We were anticipating a large turnout, as we have a supportive and involved community, but the numbers on Monday night exceeded our expectations,” said Superintendent Stacey Sidle, when reached via email Wednesday.

Northeastern High School superintendent Dr. Stacey Sidle congratulates graduate Jared Holmes after presenting him his diploma, Sunday, May 31, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Board meetings across the county have seen an unprecedented spike in attendance as more people are able to log on virtually and interest in district reopening plans has caused surges in viewership.

More:Spring Grove school board OKs mask mandate after row

The Monday meeting at Northeastern, held on GoogleMeet, is one of many school board meetings across the county recently that has exceeded typical attendance.

Typical in-person meetings of the county's 16 public school boards might see a high of 30 — or 100 for a special town hall — but lately districts have been seeing numbers upwards of 200, 300 or more.

York City saw close to 400 viewers on its Youtube livestream June 24, as people were interested in the discussion on the status of football coach Russ Stoner.

More:Russ Stoner remains York High's head football coach after raucous, marathon school board meeting

And Spring Grove Area on Monday saw more than 100 people attend in person to discuss the district's reopening plan — with 100 also in attendance via Zoom and overflow on a YouTube livestream.

Sidle said she thinks ease of online attendance and high interest in school reopening plans were both factors in Northeastern's packed meeting July 13.

Northeastern's draft plan — approved July 13 with further review slated for this week —includes a full reopening with blended or dual enrollment options for high school.

Masks would be worn per Gov. Tom Wolf's order, with a number of measures in place for social distancing, such as one-way hallways, plexiglass dividers, grab-and-go food, noncash transactions and outside seating for lunch when available.

"I don't know that we've thought of all of them," Sidle said of reopening scenarios, "I feel like COVID-19 continues to throw us curve balls."

There were so many public comment requests that after about 45 minutes, board President Margie Walker had to request the remainder send in email comments for the sake of time.

More:'Pockets of super-spreading': Wolf imposes new restrictions on bars, restaurants, gatherings

With ever-changing guidance, including  Wolf's new restrictions last week on bars, restaurants and indoor gatherings, parents are struggling to nail down enough details to make informed decisions.

"Are we following the CDC or are we following the White House? Are we following doctors and professional epidemiologists or are we following politicians?" pondered Northeastern resident Anthony Hightower last week.

That uncertainty has put even more pressure on local school boards, and families are coming in droves with questions that get more and more specific as the start of the school year inches closer.

These recent shifts in community interest have made some districts consider taking steps to increase their board meeting capacity longterm.

Central York's board has noted that it might look into keeping a virtual option available for those who cannot attend regular meetings.

And South Western board President Vanessa Berger encouraged the public to continue to come to meetings as guidance evolves and plans are updated. Wednesday's meeting of at least 75 attendees was held in the high school auditorium.

"If we see the need, we can move to a space like this more permanently," she said.