A few days before the Mount Vernon School Board was to meet on March 18, 2020, it had seemed as if it would be a normal board meeting.
When the day came, however, four of the five board members and the school district’s incoming superintendent joined the meeting via Zoom, while board President Larry Otos, then-Superintendent Carl Bruner and a small number of staff attended the meeting in person at Madison Elementary School.
It was the first in what became a long stretch of Zoom meetings, and the last time any public school board in Skagit County would meet in person for about a year.
“It was a system that we had to do because of the pandemic,” Otos said.
This Wednesday, almost exactly a year after that first Zoom meeting, members of the Mount Vernon School Board will meet again in person, with limited members of the public welcome to join them.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Otos said. “We are asking our students and our teachers to get back into in-person learning. How does it look for a board to want students and teachers to get back into in-person learning, but our board is behind a screen? What message does that send?”
As the state — and the world — begins to reopen after being shuttered by the pandemic, school boards in Skagit County are beginning to transition to hybrid models for their meetings, meaning board members and a limited number of public and staff will be allowed to meet in person, while others will be able to join via Zoom as they have for the past year.
For some districts, the hybrid model will be temporary as they wait to be allowed to move fully back to in-person meetings. For others, the hybrid model is the way of the future.
“We’ve discovered it’s a good way to communicate with our public,” said La Conner School District interim Superintendent Rich Stewart.
Still, Stewart said some conversations, especially the upcoming ones that will deal with budgets, are best held in person, which is why that board will also offer an in-person component to its meetings.
“We like to be together,” he said. “We’re going to go live as soon as possible, and we’ll probably do streaming for the rest of our lives.”
The La Conner district has experienced more public participation in the year since its board meetings moved online. That has been a bonus, Stewart said.
“An informed public will support our schools much more than an uninformed public,” Stewart said.
The Mount Vernon School District also has seen an increase in interest since it went to Zoom meetings. Sometimes there has been as many as 70 people at meetings, Otos said.
“It’s been incredible the number of people attending the meetings,” Otos said. “The pandemic really opened our eyes to be able to see how we can do things differently.”
Because school boards are comprised of elected officials managing multimillion dollar budgets, the more transparent they can be the better, Otos said.
It’s a lesson he learned while working for the city of Mount Vernon. During that time, the city decided to start broadcasting its City Council meetings.
“I was amazed at how many people tuned into that,” Otos said. “I think it’s great public access.”
Its new meeting structure will have the district using physically-distanced tables for board members and anyone who attends. The board will meet at the new Madison Elementary School, which is outfitted with updated equipment to allow it to offer quality Zoom meetings.
Using features available on Zoom, the district is also able to continue to have a translator interpret in real-time for Spanish speakers who join the video conference.
So far, there is no cost to operate the meetings in such a hybrid fashion, said district technology supervisor Tim Papendorf.
Should the board return to its tradition of moving the meetings among the different schools, the district might have to purchase equipment to make sure its older buildings are compatible with the streaming and audio requirements it needs for the hybrid model, Papendorf said.
“I absolutely think it’s worth it,” Otos said. “I think any cost for providing public access is worth whatever it costs.”
Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman, who will be leaving the district at the end of June, said his district’s board intends to continue to meet on an online-only basis until the end of April. By that time, staff should be fully vaccinated and the vaccine should be more widespread throughout the community.
While the board will then return to in-person meetings, it also plans to continue to offer access via Zoom.
“We are getting a lot of people watching our board meetings on Zoom, so why give that up?” Brockman said. “They are learning what we are doing as a school district, as a public agency. This just makes it one more way our public can see how we work, how we are supporting our students and our schools.”
Since the pandemic made Zoom a necessity, the district has also seen increased engagement for its parent/teacher conferences, Brockman said.
“Nobody asked for this, but there are some bright spots we are pulling out of this pandemic,” he said. “We are learning how to use technology to really support our school system.”
Not all school boards have seen the same type of public participation during meetings held online.
Because of low participation, the Concrete and Conway school districts will move forward with a hybrid model for now, but will switch fully to in-person meetings when it is safe to do so.
The Concrete School Board was the first to move to a hybrid model for its meetings, which it did in February.
“In this community it just makes more sense,” said Concrete Superintendent Wayne Barrett. “We’re small and that face-to-face communication is important in a small district.”
The Conway School Board intends to remain online only until May, when it will transition to a hybrid model for the beginning of its budget discussions, Superintendent Jeff Cravy said.
Should anyone be interested in joining the meeting via Zoom, Cravy will provide them a link to do so, he said.
The Burlington-Edison School District is eager to once again offer an in-person option.
“We want to go back to in-person meetings,” board President Roger Howard said. “I think it’s a better interaction with the community and the board and the administrators for us all to meet.”
District Superintendent Laurel Browning said she had not yet discussed with the board about whether to continue offering meetings online as well.
As boards begin to host in-person meetings, they are required to maintain physical distancing, stay at a maximum 25% capacity and collect information for contact tracing should it be needed.
The space requirement is why the Anacortes School Board will be meeting Thursday at Brodniak Hall — the high school’s auditorium — the district announced in a news release. At 25% capacity, Brodniak Hall can host 175 people.
However, the Anacortes district does not intend to offer meetings both in person and online, according to meeting minutes from the School Board’s Jan. 11 work session.
— This story is part of an occasional series on how this community is pushing forward — through and eventually past — the COVID-19 pandemic that reached Skagit County in March 2020.